The impact of media publicity on the criminal court


This thesis will explore the media's increasing impact on the criminal court system, specifically through prejudicial publicity given to criminal trials. In our society, the primary responsibility for gathering and disseminating information rests on the media. The media, consisting primarily of television and written publications, feel that they have a duty to provide citizens with important information about the community and the world. While the media have traditionally gathered news for informational purposes, they also provide news coverage of people and events for entertainment value. This is accomplished by focusing on the out-of-the ordinary and on stories of intrigue that capture the public's fancy. The media's desire to inform and entertain has carried over into the legal process, specifically the criminal court system. The media are typically drawn to cases that either provide a shocking, outrageous storyline, or that have a high-profile, famous defendant. The media love to exploit criminal trials for the suspense, drama, and sensationalism that they produce, as the viewing audience is longing for inside gossip and pure outrageousness. However, the media have the capability of publicizing a case beyond just mere hype, essentially turning the trial into a "media circus." Concerns arise when media outlets release prejudicial information before the case has been tried in front of the trier-of- fact, the jury. If the potential jurors consume this prejudicial, often-times inadmissible, information, then this increases the chances that jurors will pre-form opinions as to the guilt or innocence of the defendant prior to hearing the in-court evidence. If this occurs, the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial by an impartial jury is in serious jeopardy.

The media's First Amendment rights of free speech and press, coupled with a presumed right of access to criminal proceedings, lie in direct conflict with the defendant's Sixth Amendment due process rights. Exactly how courts go about balancing these rights delineated by the United States Constitution is still not definitive. The media feel that they can publicize criminal trials in any way they deem appropriate, while defendants argue that the jury pool is tainted by the media's coverage of the case. This prevents a truly unbiased jury from being chosen. Because of these constitutional issues, the United States Supreme Court has seen fit to enter the media publicity debate. While not providing, any definitive rules on when media publicity violates a defendant's Sixth Amendment's rights, the members of the Court have provided some recommendations and direction on these issues.

When a case arouses the interest of media outlets nationally and internationally, the primary focus turns to the jury pool. Since jurors are seen as the trial participants most influenced by the media coverage, methods to keep the jury from being exposed to prejudicial pretrial publicity are utilized. At times, a skillfully and thoroughly conducted voir dire can find jurors unexposed to media coverage about the case. The judge's role has expanded in recent years as the media have become more pervasive in the criminal court system. The judge is responsible for supervising the media and for making sure that they do not infringe on the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial by an impartial jury. To accomplish this duty, the trial judge has a number of mechanisms that he or she can employ against the media in order to ensure that a fair and unbiased jury is chosen for the case. However, these mechanisms are loathed by media outlets as they assert that these tools violate their First Amendment rights. Attorneys have been impacted by the media; however this relationship is unique in that it is a reciprocal one. The media publicize the trial of the attorney's client. In turn, the attorney uses this publicity as a weapon to advocate his or her client's case and proclaim guilt or innocence. Concerns about these extrajudicial statements arise when attorneys themselves release prejudicial information through the media to the representative community from which the jury will be chosen. As a result, the American Bar Association and various states have enacted rules designed to limit attorney speech so as to prevent any possibility of prejudice to the defendant in his or her trial. Indeed, the media have become more pervasive in the criminal court system, projecting events to the world as they happen. The coverage also tends to focus on the entertainment value of the case, releasing details that play on the viewer's emotions. However, an aggressive media impacts the due process rights of the accused, thus harming the search for justice. These are all issues and concerns that would not have arisen in this context, but-for the media's continuing impact on the criminal justice system.


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Thesis Completion





Bast, Carol M.


Bachelor of Arts (B.A.)


College of Health and Public Affairs

Degree Program

Legal Studies


Arts and Sciences -- Dissertations, Academic;Dissertations, Academic -- Arts and Sciences







Access Status

Open Access

Length of Campus-only Access


Document Type

Honors in the Major Thesis

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