Thursday, August 16, 2012
Much Ado (But Little To Do) About Obsessive Media Coverage of Criminal Suspects?
In June of 2012, my new book, Killing McVeigh: The Death Penalty and the Myth of Closure (also discussed in The Atlantic here), was released. For this research I talked at great length with 33 Oklahoma City Bombing’s victims’ family members and survivors about their feelings surrounding “closure,” their involvement in memorialization and victim advocacy, and how they were impacted by the bombers’ capital trials as well as Tim McVeigh’s execution. One of my most interesting conclusions was that McVeigh’s extraordinary media visibility (through news media, interviews, and an authorized biography) contributed to most family members’ and survivors’ perceptions that McVeigh had to be silenced through execution, and contributed to a feeling of “relief” following his execution (even those who opposed the death penalty felt relief, but they attributed this to media silence, not McVeigh’s silence).
In retrospect, this conclusion is fascinating, but perhaps not entirely surprising—unless we live under rocks, we are exposed to social media through television, radio, the internet, even others’ conversations. If the public’s perceptions of criminal suspects is shaped by media coverage, how much more so are those of victims’ families and survivors, who are especially sensitive to such details (and often either seek them out or seek to avoid them to a much greater extent than the general public). Yet when we think of what would influence victims’ family members’ and survivors’ feelings about a criminal suspect, we would think first of their criminal activities, and not media coverage. The extent of media influence upon these perceptions was striking—and of course the media coverage is what potentially continues (and continues, and continues) years after the suspect’s initial murderous act. And in a capital case. the effects of media coverage might be felt most pervasively in the years between trial/sentencing and execution. I am just beginning to interview September 11th victims’ family members and survivors, and the degree of voluntary and involuntary media exposure seems to be directly connected to the degree to which the terrorists are perceived to be a presence in their lives.
The difficult question now is determining what, if anything, can or should be done about this.
For instance, one could advocate the adoption of certain media professional standards to discourage “obsessive” coverage or a singular focus on criminal suspects. Even aside from First Amendment concerns, this poses problems. In the wake of the Aurora shootings, for example, several (including President Obama) decried the attention that James Holmes was receiving. But enunciating a standard would be extremely difficult. Would it apply to the size of the suspect’s photo, or where it would be placed in relation to a news story? Would it consist of recommendations to display other images, such as those of the deceased victims while living, or the crime scene or general location? At the same time, however, it is unappealing to rely on what amounts to standards such as “decency” or “professionalism,” which are similarly vague. Mass media itself has resisted many attempts at limiting certain types of images, which are easier cases because of their content—here, I am thinking back to 2010, to videos of a killer whale holding Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau underwater in the killer whale tank (the trainer later died from her injuries). The trainer’s family pleaded with the media not to continue to air this footage or to make it available on the internet. So where does this leave us--stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place?
Posted by Jody Madeira on August 16, 2012 at 02:21 PM | Permalink
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