When the World is Your Judge: The Effects of Media Coverage of Trials

May 24, 2024

When the World is Your Judge:  The Effects of Media Coverage of Trials

Untitled design (49)

By Emma Donnelly

The United States judicial system finds itself in an unprecedented circumstance.  With the Presidential elections looming, one of the front-running candidates, Former President Donald Trump, is on trial in New York.  He was charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business documents in an attempt to cover up an alleged sex scandal between the ex-president and adult-movie star, Stormy Daniels. 

But the trial is also highlighting an important transformation: media coverage not only allows public access to high-profile cases (like Trump’s), but also has deeper now than ever before on court proceedings and the aftermath of the trials.


What is a High-Profile Case?

           In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of high-profile trials, but what exactly does the term “high profile” entail?  According to Greg Hurley, a knowledge and information services analyst for the National Center for State Courts, a high-profile case is one that attracts enough attention from the media that alterations to the normal court process are deemed necessary.  Often, high-profile cases are the result of a celebrity arrest or an exceptionally grievous crime.  

Examples of High-Profile Cases

  • Ted Bundy:  Ted Bundy is one of the most infamous serial killers in American history, killing at least 30 women between 1974 and 1979.  He was apprehended in 1979 and placed on trial for the murder of two Florida State University sorority sisters.  The following year, he was tried for the murder a 12-year-old girl, his final victim.  In both cases, Bundy was found guilty and sentenced to death.  He was executed in Florida by electric chair in 1989.
  • OJ Simpson:  OJ Simpson was famous for his outstanding career as a football star, but gained notoriety in 1995 when he was accused of the murder of his ex-wife and her friend.  In 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goodman were found murdered outside Nicole’s condo.  Simpson was a prime suspect, but instead of surrendering to the police, he attempted to escape in a nationally televised car chase.  He was eventually caught and tried for murder, but was acquitted.
  • Alex Murdaugh:  In June of 2021, prominent South Carolina prosecutor Alex Murdaugh called 911 and reported he’d returned home to find his wife and youngest son dead near the family’s dog kennels.  Over a year later, he was charged with their murder.  In January of 2023, he was found guilty of double homicide and several financial crimes and given two life sentences for the murders.
Untitled design (50)

How Does Media Coverage Affect Court Proceedings?

            The amount of publicity a case receives undoubtedly has effects on the proceedings of the trial.  If a case has been the center of public attention before it even reached the courtroom, then there is a risk that justice could be obstructed.  

Juries

If a case received significant public attention before the jury selection, that could impede the process of finding impartial jurors.  Many people find it difficult to set aside their personal beliefs in order to fairly judge the evidence being presented before them, and therefore, it can be a challenge to not enter the courtroom with preconceived notions.  Many jurors are also hesitant to take part in a high-profile case because they don’t want to be subjected to scrutiny or even threats.

  • As seen in the jury selection process for the current Donald Trump trial in New York, several potential jurors rejected the proposal because they couldn’t be impartial or were afraid of having too much identifying information released to the public.

Judges

In addition to jurors, it’s also important to consider the effect that publicity has on judges.  According to Madison Ferguson, a member of the Esfandi Law Group, a judge is more likely to impose a harsher sentence if a case is highly publicized.  Additionally a judge presiding over a high-profile case is more susceptible to threats and other outside influences.

  • NPR writer Ari Shapiro interviewed Reuters reporter Ned Parker on April 2, 2024, and revealed that judges in Trump-related cases have received an unprecedented amount of death threats.

Witness testimony

Extensive media coverage of a trial could also impact witness testimony.  If there are cameras and reporters in the room, a witness may feel impelled to change their testimony.  Without the safety net of anonymity, combined with the widespread public following of the case, it could undermine a witness’ sense of security.

            Steps taken to ensure that a highly publicized trial is fair and just include:

  • Relocating the trial to a location where media coverage would be significantly downgraded
  • Instructing the jury to not read or watch anything related to the case
  • The judge issuing “gag orders” that prevents any court employee or person involved in the case from addressing it with the press
  • Monitoring juror activities and censoring their access to the media, although this method is rare

Implications of High-Profile Cases

            One has to wonder, if justice is to be served as fairly as possible, what message does publicizing the process really send?  Especially when that publicity risks the integrity of the system itself.  Public figures are who people look to guide the community.  Normal people either feel drawn to them as representations of themselves, or oppose them because they’re decisions go against a firm set of beliefs.  Of course, when those same people are put on trial, it’s going to cause a stir.  It’s not unbelievable to think that the interest and fluctuating levels of uproar that accompany a case like Donald Trump’s can affect the outcome of the trial.



            Now, the juxtaposition of justice and fame is bringing the nation to a crossroads.  For so long, the justice system has been proudly connected with the executive branch of the government.  They now find themselves at odds, as a presidential candidate faces criminal charges merely six months before an election.  Now more than ever, high profile cases are shaping the nation, as the formidable United States democracy shifts to adapt to the changing world around it.