Media coverage taints ongoing criminal investigations


Julianna Poe, Online Editor-in-Chief

The capability to follow criminal investigations and trials in the news captivates civilians. From car chases, Amber Alerts and kidnappings to murder mysteries all at one’s fingertips, feeling involved in the investigation can often occur. However, with extensive coverage before a conviction, proper trials for suspects prove difficult.

One major aspect of a criminal investigation that will suffer from media attention is the jury. After an individual has been randomly selected to potentially serve as a juror, the United States Courts states that the judge and attorneys in a case use a questionnaire process called voir dire in order to “exclude from the jury people who may not be able to decide the case fairly.” Anyone who knows the person involved in the case, is aware of details about the case or even has strong opinions before the case has begun are not included in the jury, and the process to find an eligible juror resumes. By using the voir dire process, the justice system adheres to the Sixth Amendment, which according to the Constitution, it states: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district.” However, when the public becomes aware of a criminal investigation, finding an objective individual can become a long and lengthy process or even an impossible one. If ongoing criminal investigations were not publically accessible, the process of finding an unbiased jury would be more efficient and effective.

All forms of media, including the internet, television, social media and news outlets can influence how the public perceives a criminal investigation. Moreover, how journalism covers a case has an effect on how the public responds to it. For example, when a journalist uses “sensationalist” reporting techniques – or covers an event by using exaggerated language and focusing on the emotional impact – it can be difficult to keep the public from expressing itself. As a result, as the public becomes more involved in a criminal investigation, the more difficult it becomes for an objective conviction to occur.

The public pressure for a specific outcome on a criminal investigation can create problems in the process. For instance, in the 1990s, Aileen Wuornos – known as the first female United States serial killer – and her trial grew tainted by news coverage that fueled public outrage. The news – according to a profiling by Phyllis Chesler, a professor of psychology – made Wuornos out to be a “monster” or an “unacceptably ‘bad’ girl,” which put pressure on those working on a conviction.

To prevent public opinion from influencing a criminal investigation’s results and allow for a more unbiased jury, news media should be restricted from disclosing information about ongoing criminal investigations. Police reports currently permitted and drawn up by law enforcement also should not be publically accessible until after a conviction.

Likewise, police body cameras – if present in the case – should not be available to the public until the case has been closed. Even social media coverage from bystanders should be against the law to keep the public from becoming involved.

In short, all media outlets do not need to cover a criminal investigation and law enforcement does not need to release information until the case has concluded in order to protect the integrity of the justice system.