In slightly more than a year, the American public has been treated to some of the most high-profile and media-hyped criminal trials in decades. Since July 2011, we have given the watchful public Casey Anthony, Conrad Murray, John Edwards, Roger Clemens and Jerry Sandusky, each catapulted into the national spotlight and scrutinized under the hot lights of the media.
Anthony was acquitted of murdering her young daughter; Murray was found guilty of negligence in the death of pop icon Michael Jackson. Edwards, a former U.S. senator and presidential candidate, was accused of using campaign money to fund and hide an adulterous relationship; his case ended in a mistrial. Clemens was tried, retried and acquitted of steroid use as a professional baseball pitcher. Sandusky was found guilty on multiple counts of being a sexual predator of young boys during and after his days as an assistant football coach at Penn State University.
As a crime and courts reporter who spent six years working at the state and federal levels, I can tell you it’s exciting to report on capital cases, but it’s not for amateurs or passer-by journalists. The criminal and civil justice systems are complex and require a thorough understanding of legal proceedings in order to be accurate and fair. The problem is many of the aforementioned trials were treated more like an entertainment beat where “boring” legal issues regarding facts and procedures succumbed to titillating details and sensationalistic gossip.
The ethical challenges to covering legal issues are faced by journalists at every level. The SPJ Code of Ethics addresses a large number of these moral dilemmas. Some passages can be applied to judicial coverage, while others speak directly to it.
The Code says:
• Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoings.
• Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on a source’s reliability.
• Make sure headlines, news teases, promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent.
• Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
• Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
• Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
• Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
• Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
• Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
• Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.
With help from the above citations, I think journalists would be well served if they addressed a number of ethical questions before embarking on trial coverage. Some of these questions would help drive more respectable, fair and ethical coverage. These questions are generally aimed at newsrooms and reporters:
• What are your biases? Do corporate or individual prejudices affect your coverage of crimes? Does race affect your attitude? (Think Trayvon Martin.) What about religion or wealth?
• What guiding factors direct your coverage? Why do you pass on some cases and cover others? What determines your level of coverage and commitment of resources? Is criminal generally more important than civil? Has your coverage policy changed over time?
• Does your newsroom have policies about what constitutes good taste? Can you define it in case the public asks? Does it change from crime to crime or case to case? How much detail about a crime, say a sex offense or murder, do you need to tell?
• Do images fall under this heading and are there consistent rules for them? What about suicides?
• Do you make attempts to balance coverage? Do you favor the victim’s stories over the suspect’s? What are your policies about dealing with families or friends of both? Do you routinely question the motives of people you interview for these stories?
• Do you make diligent efforts to make sure the suspect’s rights are protected? Do you give as much attention to the dismissal of charges as you do the arrest? Do you make efforts to talk to those charged with crimes?
Covering crimes and courts is not for the ethically weak. To properly cover the justice system, you need to be educated on legal proceedings; you need to be mindful of tradition and respectful of the process; you need to observe and report with an open mind; and you must bring your best ethical practices with you every day. High drama and low professional standards are journalistic grounds for contempt of court.
Tagged under: Ethics