Everyone knows that the media has an intense impact on modern society. Whether you are talking about television, radio, and other digital forms of media, you can find virtually any information you want, from the current score in a college ball game to weather information across the globe and the latest in politics from your state, the nation, or the world. So, it is certainly not a shock to learn that the media has the potential to influence attitudes and beliefs. While the value of this is debatable, it can, in fact, be problematic when media coverage influences attitudes about current criminal cases. That is because the criminal justice system relies on the open-mindedness of jurors when deciding a case. When a juror has heard about a case, it could influence their feelings about a defendant. Additionally, cameras in the courtroom could influence the way witnesses or jurors behave. It is a big deal, especially when defendants are facing serious penalties.
When it comes to finding jurors who can look beyond their own bias, high-profile cases can be especially challenging when the media has implied innocence or guilt. A juror’s impartiality is scrutinized during voir dire, the selection process. At that time, both the prosecution and the defense attorneys are permitted to question members of the jury pool. Some of that questioning could relate to each juror’s exposure to various media reports related to the case. Judges and attorneys recognize that media can prejudice people, even though they may not realize it themselves. In cases where a juror does believe that they can act with impartiality and follow the instructions issued by the judge, they may be eliminated for cause by either side.
Bias on the Bench
Of course, judges are people, too, and thus are equally susceptible to the media they consume. One study concluded that elected judges are susceptible to thoughts relating to public views of crime, which results in more punitive sentencing when cases are widely reported.
Capital cases can be particularly tricky, both because they are emotionally charged and because they have had top media coverage. In these cases, jurors must be “death qualified.” They will be questioned as to whether they believe they will be able to weigh the evidence presented, including aggravating or mitigating evidence, and truly contemplate a possible sentence of execution and/or life in prison. This can be difficult for anyone, especially if the media has had a strong impact on one’s view of the case before it gets to trial. Research indicates that death-qualified jurors are more likely to watch the news daily and lean toward the prosecution. Continue reading