Casey Anthony and the Court of Public Opinion

When a high profile case goes to court, there are really two proceedings taking place. There is, first of all, the mundane legal process being carried out within the confines of a courtroom as lawyers trade barbs that many of us, myself included, don’t really understand. When a trial is covered with close interest, however, the judgment of the law is not the only one taking place. As the public is drawn into a case, usually one that lends itself easily to sensationalistic coverage, perhaps because of a high profile client or some other scandalous aspect, media coverage spawns its bastard offshoot known as the “court of public opinion.” The defendant will not only be subjected to the whim of the jury, but now to the public at large. Whatever the decision of the judge or jury, the persons of interest in the case, including any individual involved in an ancillary manner, are the subject of the public’s own verdict.

Casey Anthony and Dominique Strauss-Khan are certainly the two most notorious recent examples of cases that were dragged into the court of public opinion. I’ll focus primarily on the former here, but the two are similar in many respects. Everyone seemed to have an opinion and what’s more, many seemed to develop a vested interest in the outcome of both cases. For some, though not all, DSK was a symbol of upper class male privilege who saw it fit to take advantage of someone who represented the absolute antithesis of privilege. This is to say nothing of the turn around that redirected the outrage at DSK’s accuser for her supposed lack of credibility and false accusation, though much of this case still remains murky to me.

The Casey Anthony affair lacked the international reach of the DSK debacle, but it seemed to generate a much more of a grip on media resources. According to the LA Times, all the major cable news outlets, MSNBC, FoxNews, and CNN, carried the verdict live. Nancy Grace and CBS’ 48 Hours Mystery devoted several primetime specials to the trial. Ms. Anthony’s character was also consistently and intricately examined by the likes of Dr. Drew and renowned criminal psychologist Joy Behar.

I plan to raise more questions rather than providing answers here because in light of the relationship between journalists and the public interest, the Casey Anthony trial simply left me baffled. It shouldn’t be surprising that a great number of media outlets tended toward sensationalism or crafted a soap opera on a grand scale out of a story that so readily lent itself to such coverage. Whether the public attraction to the trial was an offshoot of our supposed obsession with missing or victimized photogenic white females (“pretty white girl syndrome”) or just a desire for guiltless judgment directed at Ms. Anthony, there are several reasons that the trial could have drawn the attention it did.  What is not clear is why the trial should have been covered and in what manner it serves any journalistic purpose.

Journalism operates on a wide set of premises and purposes, far too many to be named here. One such obvious premise, however, is that journalism has a relation to the public and is in turn doing a public service. Journalists have a task of discerning what is newsworthy, what facts are important, and from what angle a story should be covered. Ultimately, the purpose is a matter of informing and nourishing the public, pursuing truth and sometimes dissent all in the name of creating an informed and engaged citizenry. Media outlets as a whole have a delicate task of parsing out the public’s right to know, often while maintaining regard for the safety of sources or subjects.

It’s really not clear at all where the public interest resides in the unending Casey Anthony coverage. It certainly wasn’t the case that Caylee Anthony’s murder was entirely unique or the result of something that put the rest of the public in danger as well. In fact, Caylee Anthony’s death was the product of common circumstances that often lead to child deaths, yet none of those cases were covered. All that seems to set this particular case apart is that photogenic child and the easily maligned mother.

It certainly can’t be said that the trial would have any lasting significance, given that murder trials are carried out on a daily basis, once again under circumstances very similar to those at play in the Anthony trial. Save for the scandalous details and surrounding soap opera, nothing about this trial was anything other than routine. No legal precent would be set and other than those directly involved in the proceedings, no lives would be impacted in any significant way. Once again, it’s more than a little unclear exactly what was newsworthy about this trial.

Lastly, there is that bastard offspring known as the court of public opinion. No matter the verdict, the public, or various segments of it, had formed its perceptions of the trial and Ms. Anthony and was sticking to it no matter the outcome. Many seemed out for Ms. Anthony’s head from the get-go, and once the decision was rendered, maintained a sense that she was indeed guilty rather than accepting the verdict of the justice system in which many claim to have so much faith and trust. Many front pages from across the US bluntly claimed that Casey Anthony got away with murder. Similarly, many papers lamented that there was no justice for young Caylee Anthony and that this was a tragedy. Certainly, it is unfortunate that we do not and likely never will know what happened to the victim in this case, but simply convicting Ms. Anthony for the sake of ensuring “justice” without sufficient evidence would be no better.

There is no doubt that after an ordeal such as this trial, things would never be the same for the Anthony family. It is unimaginable to endure the emotional trauma of seeing a loved-one on trial, let alone on trial for the death of another loved one. This trauma is exacerbated now by the fact that this trial has gone public. Ms. Anthony may have been vindicated by the judicial system, or perhaps slipped through its cracks due to a poor job by the prosecution as many seem to think, but her reentry into public life is now marred by a public that became emotionally invested in her case and many who are certain that she is the very scum of the Earth, a negligent and self-centered mother as well as a pathological liar who murdered her own child.

I don’t know Casey Anthony’s character and don’t truly feel any connection to this case, certainly not in the form of sympathy for the accused. Apathy probably better describes my state of mind. Nonetheless, and this is the broader issue here, I recognize the rights of the accused to a fair trial and understand that putting faith in the system we have entails that one respect the outcome as well. For the sake of human dignity and respect, someone who is exonerated deserves the right to pick up the pieces of their life and move on. This will not be easy in any case and as such caution is necessary in how such matters are covered and what details are shared with the public.

The Anthony family might well profit from this trial along with jurors and members of the prosecution and defence, but just as well those same individuals will see their safety compromised and will be bombarded by death threats and vitriol from all corners thanks to the grand scale of exposure they experienced during the coverage of this trial. This trial didn’t have to be national, and to some extent, international news, but thanks to its scandalous nature, this is exactly what happened despite there being no reason that the public should have been exposed to this trial other than that it engaged our thirst for a good public lynching.

Journalism is not exactly sport or science. There is no universal, codified rulebook for media figures to consult when it comes to what they cover and how they cover it. This doesn’t preclude media outlets, however, from considering the broader implications of their actions or developing a basic conception of the public interest and how to serve it. By most measures, this case was as insignificant as it was tragic when considered in light of its impact on the public as a whole. Certainly, the murder and abduction of children is a topic worthy of examination, but fixation on one individual and her family in a manner that does not at all advance the broader issue is not helpful in any way. Rather than enriching the public discourse, media outlets, too many to name, made spectacle out of tragedy in this guise of news and we took the bait.

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