Guilty and Threatening: Visual Bias in Television News Crime Stories

By Barnett, Brooke | Journalism and Communication Monographs, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Guilty and Threatening: Visual Bias in Television News Crime Stories


Barnett, Brooke, Journalism and Communication Monographs


Abstract

This experiment investigates the effects of television crime news portrayals of the accused on evaluations of that person. Forty subjects watched television crime news stories, which contained either visual (dressed in an orange suit, wearing handcuffs and being restrained by a police officer) or aural (mention of a prior record) bias. Results show that subjects who saw the visual bias evaluated the accused as more threatening, dangerous and guilty than those who did not see the bias. Those who heard about a prior record evaluated the accused as more threatening and guilty, but not as more dangerous than those who did not hear about the record. These impressions of guilt remained after a two-week delay. Findings illustrate how common TV news portrayals of a person accused of a crime can prejudice the general public. Also, accidental viewing of a criminal defendant in prison clothes or being restrained can affect snap judgments about that person during the trial. Implications for journalists and the legal system are discussed.

Almost a half century ago, Marilyn Sheppard was stabbed to death in her home. She was six months pregnant. Across the country, front-page headlines splashed the gory details of the murder. Each day, local and national newspapers delivered inflammatory revelations, including the fact that Marilyn Sheppard's husband was a prime suspect. Local press coverage was particularly incriminating. Dr. Sam Sheppard was eventually charged and convicted of murder.

Twelve years and numerous appeals later, the Supreme Court overturned Dr. Sheppard's murder conviction because it said he had been denied the right to a fair trial as a result of pretrial publicity and a "carnival atmosphere" in the courtroom (Sheppard v. Maxwell, 1966, p. 358). The Court said he had been tried in the media rather than in the courtroom. The justices harshly reprimanded the judge who conducted the trial and outlined the trial judge's responsibility to ensure that the defendant's rights are not jeopardized by publicity (see Campbell, 1994, for discussion). The case and ruling proved to be a watershed moment in the relationship between the media and the courts; it was tho last time the Supreme Court found so decidedly on the side of a defendant's right to a fair trial.

Following this ruling, the American Bar Association proposed routine use of restrictive orders-more commonly called gag orders-to control the potential negative effects of press coverage (ABA, 1968). Restrictive orders on lawyers, court officers, and sometimes the press became common. For the next decade, key players in the trial were regularly silenced. This practice, however, was not tolerated for long. In 1968, the American Newspaper Publishers Association argued that press coverage actually enables fair trials, not hinders them (ANPA, 1967). It argued that reporters must have full access to court proceedings so that the public can make informed judgments about the justice system. The Supreme Court seemed to agree. In 1976, it sharply limited restrictive orders on the press (Nebraska Press Ass'n v. Stuart, 1976) because of the conflict with the First Amendment. The Court said that gag orders on the media should be a last resort in high- profile cases when release of the information will create a clear and present danger to the conduct of a fair trial and when no other remedies could offset the effects of negative publicity (Nebraska Press Ass'n v. Stuart, 1976). Again the tide appeared to have shifted, this time in favor of the media. However, some lower courts have road Nebraska Press Ass'n v. Stuart as an invitation for more restrictive orders on other trial participants such as lawyers; in this way, the media are restricted because a traditional avenue of information has been closed off.

Since then, few cases have survived the intense scrutiny necessary to mandate a restrictive order on the press (KUTV v. Wilkinson, 1984).1 Also, the Supreme Court has not reversed any convictions because of pretrial publicity since the Sheppard case (United States v. …

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