Although criminal offenses are serious matters that have to be managed judiciously and independently, the media plays a role in how these events are shaped in the public conscious. Reporters, editors, producers and other key identities always hope that they are merely reflecting these events rather than acting as a protagonist, but that perception can be misplaced depending on the context.
From blockbuster movies to Netflix miniseries and documentaries, the likes of John Wayne Gacy, Al Capone, Ted Bundy and Charles Manson have all been the subject of extensive coverage by the time they were charged to the moment they were imprisoned. This poses some serious questions that are worthwhile exploring in further depth.
Has this always been the case or have collective behaviors changed over time? How has this influenced public sentiment and how can people view these matters as either standout cases or something that is more indicative of a wider trend?
First and foremost, the media has an obligation to cover stories that are in the public interest. This is the initial starting point where broadcast news networks, local television stations, newspapers, radio stations and other outlets have a duty to their constituents. What complicates the issue among many factors is the blurring of the lines between criminal coverage and entertainment.
Sensationalism is an inescapable draw for media when it comes to their need for clicks and views to drive revenue. Rene Russo’s character Nina in the 2014 thriller Nightcrawler would say it best to Lou Bloom: “if it bleeds – it leads!” Capturing crime on video in particular is a captivating medium, allowing broadcasters to own exclusive footage that has the ability to ‘go viral.’
The advent of social media has completely altered the picture for media outlets covering crime in the modern age. Thanks to Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and more, victims, criminals and witnesses have the opportunity to live stream events in real time to the masses. As confronting as it is to see, this can be critical information that identifies culprits and brings justice to those who suffer at their hands.
As effective as social media has been for a tool for good to shine a light on these crimes, it has also been weaponized. The spread of ‘revenge porn’ has been one such example where naked images and compromised videos are leaked to Facebook and Twitter while shootings and beatings have been broadcast online as a means of highlighting propaganda.
One of the issues that is tied to the media through crime is their shaping of the narrative. The robbery of Kim Kardashian would be sensationalized among all quarters, but it would come at the expense of other coverage at a community level. In this regard, there can be a schism between ‘acceptable’ and ‘non acceptable’ forms of crime that is perpetuated by media entities.
The fact remains that media coverage of crime can adversely impact a criminal trial with their editorial decisions proving decisive in some situations. Judges and participants in the criminal justice system will utilize every mechanism possible to remove jury members from this level of exposure, but the infamous murder case involving OJ Simpson was emblematic of broadcast news and the written press creating additional controversy. Once a criminal trial becomes famous or involves a major public figure, there are a multitude of challenges for attorneys, judges and others who have to ensure justice is upheld.
The media and crime will always be subjects that are interconnected. It is the vehicle that influences how communities think about criminal behavior, how they gauge the threat those is posed to themselves and whether or not they need to take proactive steps to ensure their safety. Consumers of news should always take note of these stories in context.