September 2013

Line in the Sand: Media Sensationalism of High Profile Court Trials Good or Bad for Society?

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr. & Courtney Hampson | Photographer: Photography by Anne

Frank Dunne, Jr.
It had to happen sooner or later. No existentialism (or was it metaphysics?) like last edition and no movies like the one before. Today we circle back to issues that raise the ire. We’re talking about wall-to-wall sensationalized media coverage of high profile criminal cases a la Casey Anthony, Jodi Arias and more recently George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin.

I’m not opposed to covering criminal trials as news per se, but the manner in which it is done these days is, I think, dangerous and harmful to the country. News reporters and anchors are supposed to be journalists, that is, they’re supposed to report facts with objectivity while leaving opinions and agendas to editorialists. Unfortunately that train derailed years ago, and much of the “lamestream” media has become totally agenda driven. It was egregiously evident in coverage of Zimmerman’s trial.

A certain segment of evil elitists politicized the case in an attempt to hijack the administration of justice in favor of pushing their agenda of racism, class warfare and general social unrest. In a disgraceful exhibition this army of hypocrites employed a favorite tactic of their ilk, accuse the opposition of that which you do yourself. In this instance the Zimmerman lynch mob “decided” that Zimmerman was motivated by racism, and they were going to get the verdict they wanted, facts, truth, evidence and rule of law be damned. It mattered not that police and prosecutors with jurisdiction over the case had already told us that there was no evidence to support charging Zimmerman with murder.

News outlets enthusiastically hopped aboard, glibly dismissing any evidence suggesting that Zimmerman acted in self-defense and virtually ignoring the fact that Zimmerman did have reason to be suspicious of Martin. His neighborhood had seen a rash of crime in the preceding months, all committed by young black men who did not live there. Realizing the weakness of racism allegations levied against Zimmerman, one network news department shamefully altered an audio recording to fabricate a “presumably” racist remark that they could attribute to Zimmerman. I was particularly appalled by a comment heard amid the cacophony of TV panel discussions when one so-called legal expert explained what needed to happen in the courtroom “…if we’re going to get the verdict that we want.” The verdict that we want? What about the right verdict?

What I find so disturbing about all this is that it distorts the very notion of what justice is. If we are to believe the blowhards on HLN, MSNBC et al we would think that justice in this case is defined only by a Zimmerman conviction, irrespective of the facts and irrespective of the evidence, simply because a bunch of groupthink hate mongers wanted it that way. Scarier still is the way Barack Obama stuck his two cents in, despite the fact that the President of the United States has no business injecting himself into criminal proceedings. His comment, “I might have been Trayvon Martin,” would be laughable if it wasn’t so damaging. Sir, with all due respect, you grew up privileged. You attended an elite prep school in Hawaii and an Ivy League University. Since you are so obsessed with race, I’ll sink to your level and point out that you are multi-racial, which really makes you more like George Zimmerman than Trayvon Martin. POTUS (Presidents of the United States) are supposed to lead by example and promote unity among the American people. Instead, the Race Baiter in Chief did what he does best: foment racism and pit groups of Americans against one another. And the media are only too happy to help.

Thank God the jury saw through the smoke and mirrors, considered the facts and the evidence, and returned the correct verdict. An innocent man remains free. Justice was done. They did their jobs. Until the news media decide to start doing their jobs, the next time one of these media circus trials comes about, I suggest that we all grab the remote and change the channel. Better yet, turn the damned thing off.

Courtney Hampson

Frank asks, “Are the justice system and society at large served or damaged by wall-to-wall media coverage of cases like Ariel Castro, George Zimmerman, Casey Anthony et al?”

Well Frank, of course media is making the public a bunch of idiotic (yes, I still love using your favorite word) zombies. Social media is especially deft at creating a society that no longer values articulation, full sentences or grammar. I mean, WTF?
I remain stunned by the fact that teenagers and adults alike believe that social media is a private channel for their inner-most mumblings. I guess there is a perceived power when you can Tweet Justin Beiber and, despite his lack of response, still believe that you communicated with him.

Allow me to put on my professor hat. In 1976, communication theorist George Gerbner said, “Television has become the main source of storytelling in today’s society. Those who watch four or more hours a day are labeled heavy television viewers, and those who view less than four hours per day are light viewers. Heavy viewers are exposed to more violence and therefore are affected by the Mean World Syndrome, an idea that the world is worse than it actually is.” So, according to Gerbner, the overuse of television was creating a homogeneous and fearful population.

George was onto something. Fast forward to 2013. If the television shows you watch include The Real Housewives of NJ and Jersey Shore, your opinion of folks from New Jersey may be a tad skewed. We’re not all rich, tan, Mafioso’s who flip tables when we get mad and rank going to the gym ahead of doing laundry.

Gerbner’s theory stands true today, but can be expanded beyond television to include the more recent mass communication channels that have been introduced to society. The Internet provides a 24/7 news source. If I search long enough, I will find someone who agrees with me, and because social media has provided me with a virtual microphone, I now have a channel for sharing my opinion. And, I have an audience!

So yes, as a whole, I believe that media damages us in that it makes us lazy. For the most part, we don’t take the time to research and form our own opinions. Instead we rely on the opinions of the “newsmakers.” We get our information from like-minded people. Today’s media allows us the opportunity to personally know our newscasters, radio broadcasters and journalists. Once we believe that we know them, we are more likely to connect with them and their content.

I’ve been listening to Howard Stern in the mornings for more than 20 years. A decade ago, I drove 60 miles to work each day, giving me roughly a full hour of Howard’s opinion, which further shaped my opinions. Today, my whopping eight-mile commute gets me about 15 minutes of Howard, yet as major news stories break, I often find myself asking, “Hmmm, I wonder what Howard has to say…”

I know, I am 500 words in and haven’t disagreed with Frank yet. So here it is. Information is power. Yes, the media and various media tools may be over-informing us, but who cares? It is incumbent upon us to decipher what is relevant and be smart enough to weed through the BS. (That is part of the beauty of social media. When I am over your passive aggressive tweets, I stop following you.)

On August 9, after a week-long search, Hannah Anderson was found alive due to an AMBER Alert that appeared nationwide via our media. The AMBER Alert system was put in place in 1996 to instantly galvanize an entire community to assist in the search for and safe recovery of a missing child.

In this instance, it worked just as it should.

In fact, Hannah Anderson’s father had this to say: “I want to thank all who spread the word, who shared their hearts and thoughts across the country. Because of you, this reached across and beyond the United States. Have no doubt that made a difference. Though relentless, I would also like to thank the media. All of your coverage keeping the issue alive helped to bring my daughter home…”


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