Source Utilization in Legal Journalism: Network TV News Coverage of the Timothy McVeigh Oklahoma City Bombing Trial
Esposito, Steven A., Communications and the Law
The O. J. Simpson criminal case has come and gone, but the specter of this mass-mediated spectacle continues to haunt the American judicial system. Since Simpson's October 3, 1995 acquittal of double murder charges, the debate over cameras in the courtroom has intensified and the legal profession has undergone a barrage of criticism.(1)
Citing the media frenzy that engulfed the Simpson criminal trial, judges have been reluctant to open their courtrooms to cameras, especially in high-profile cases in which provocative sound bites, taken out of context, might sour the public perception of the judicial system.(2) Declaring an obligation to maintain dignity and decorum in the courtroom, and the integrity of the judicial process, judges in high-profile cases have also begun to issue sweeping gag orders that prohibit trial participants from engaging in public discussion about court proceedings.(3)
While all media are affected by such prior-restraint orders, none has been affected more than television, which relies largely on visual images to help tell its stories. The impact of television on the judicial process, however, is of particular concern. Of all the participants in the courtroom theater, the defendant appears to be the most vulnerable to the camera, typically cast as an unsympathetic and culpable figure.(4) The powerful images of television "connote `meanings' that are impossible to dispel, the primary one being that if the accused looks guilty, he must be."(5)
Although the courtroom and television both are storytelling institutions, the compelling narratives they weave often are at odds with one another. Televised court stories have a different agenda because the narratives "are likely to originate from the reporter's or producer's predefined angles based on what is most interesting to the audience, rather than what is central to the trial."(6) One of the primary factors in the development of "media trials" is the increased competition over ratings between news organizations.(7) This results in an increase in news being structured along entertainment lines. High-profile cases, therefore, allow the television news industry to attract and entertain a large general audience while maintaining its projected image as an objective, neutral reporter of reality.(8)
Many of those who frame the courtroom news that shapes reality, such as reporters and producers, are employed directly by the media and construct the content of trial coverage through the selection of facts to include or exclude and emphasize or de-emphasize in their stones.(9) Although the norms of news objectivity imply that reporters present both sides, most courtroom reports promote one controversial theme, adopt one point of view, and exclude evidence not supporting their position.(10)
Another critical force behind television news is exerted by the journalists' sources who originate much of what appears on the screen.(11) Sources provide the reporter with the raw material of news--data, opinions, observations, and statements. Source selection determines not only who will be heard but also what will be heard.(12) Experts, attorneys, victims' and defendants' family members, witnesses, and law enforcement officials are but a few of the integral components of the newsgathering process in the coverage of judicial proceedings.
What happens, though, in high-profile cases in which cameras are banned from the proceedings and trial participants are ordered not to talk to the media? Who, then, become the primary sources of courtroom reports and how does this shape the trial narratives?
This article seeks to answer these questions by examining the use of sources through close analysis of a specific case--network news' coverage of the 1997 Timothy McVeigh Oklahoma City bombing trial. McVeigh, a decorated Gulf War veteran, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. …