New page

Trial by media is a phrase popular in the late 20th century and early 21st century to describe the impact of television and newspaper coverage on a person's reputation by creating a widespread perception of guilt regardless of any verdict in a court of law.

In the United Kingdom there is a heated debate between those who support a free press which is largely uncensored and those who place a higher priority on an individual's right to privacy.

During high publicity court cases. the media is often accused of provoking an atmosphere of public hysteria akin to a lynch mob which not only makes a fair trial nearly impossible but means that regardless of the result of the trial the accused will not be able to live the rest of their life without being hounded at every turn.

The counter-argument is that the mob mentality exists independently of the media which merely voices the opinions which the public already has.

There are different reasons why the media attention is particularly intense surrounding a legal case: the first is that the crime itself is in some way sensational, by being horrific or involving children; the second is that it involves a celebrity either as victim or accused.


Although a recently coined phrase, the idea that popular media can have a strong influence on the legal process goes back certainly to the advent of the printing press and probably much further. This is not including the use of a state controlled press to criminalize political opponents, but in its commonly understood meaning covers all occasions where the reputation of a person has been drastically affected by ostensibly non-political publications.

20th century

One of the first celebrities in the 20th century to be arguably tried by media was Fatty Arbuckle who was acquitted by the courts but nevertheless lost his career and reputation due to the media coverage.

Parallels can be drawn between these cases and the trial of O.J. Simpson. The connection is less about guilt or innocence but about the promotion of the media coverage in the public mind above the status of the court.

Another interesting case in the US was the Rodney King incident and subsequent trial of the police officers involved. Once again an acquittal is challenged by the media reporting with violent consequences. What makes this case particularly important historically is the fact that it was amateur video footage which provided the key evidence of perceived guilt. As video cameras and their digital successors and CCTV become more wide spread, this type of 'caught on camera' incident become more and more common (another case of alleged police brutality has come to light in Manchester in February 2004[citation needed].) This can pose real problems for the legal system as the evidence they provide may be inadmissible for technical reasons (e.g. not being able to pinpoint exact times) but they give very strong images for the media (and public) to seize upon and the potential to manipulate by editing.

Even where a criminal court finds somebody guilty the media can still appear to sit in judgement over their sentence. Examples include Myra Hindley whose proposed release from prison after thirty years was widely condemned by the British press (the argument became moot when she died in 2002); Maxine Carr who, having served her sentence, has been released and is, according to some commentators being "demonised by the press". One case popularized by the media between 1980 and 1982 was the murder trial of Lindy Chamberlain in Australia who was convicted of killing her baby, but later released in 1986 on new evidence showing that a dingo had in fact committed the act as was originally claimed by Chamberlain. The motion picture A Cry in the Dark depicted Chamberlain, as played by actress Meryl Streep, caught in a "trial by media" which fed the public's, and subsequently the jury's false conviction of her.

Often the coverage in the press can be said to reflect the views of the person in the street. However, more credibility is generally given to printed material than 'water cooler gossip'. The responsibility of the press to confirm reports and leaks about individuals being tried has come under increasing scrutiny and journalists are calling for higher standards. There was much debate over U.S President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial and prosecutor Kenneth Starr's investigation and how the media handled the trial by reporting commentary from lawyers which influenced public opinion.[1] Another example was the investigation into biologist Steven Hatfill allegedly sending anthrax through the U.S. mail as a terrorist attack, which resulted in no conviction, but Hatfill went on to sue as his reputation was severely tarnished and career destroyed.

Families and friends of persons convicted of crimes have apparently successfully used the power of the media to reopen cases, such as the Stephen Downing case in Derbyshire where a campaign by a local newspaper editor resulted in a successful appeal and his release after twenty seven years in prison.