Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Casey Anthony through the fun house

Revised and updated July 7, 2011
"The day of the 24-hour news cycle causes people to ponder and wonder, 'what is journalism anymore?’” – Judge Belvin Perry of the Casey Anthony trial
Calling yourself a journalist doesn’t make you one. You have to walk the talk.

Coverage of the already infamous Casey Anthony trial is the latest case in point. While there were, indeed, journalists covering the trial, the major attention-getters were people like Nancy Grace, Jane Velez-Mitchell, Dr. Drew Pinskey and Greta Van Susteren. Eventually, nearly every major TV personality got in on the act including, yes, Geraldo Rivera.

In case you’ve been holed up in a bunker the past month, Anthony is the mother of two-and-a-half-year-old Caylee Anthony, whose body was found in an Orlando-area swamp three years ago. There is widespread shock and chagrin that Casey Anthony “got away with it.” The trial was a circus of Shakespearean proportions that included allegations of incest, lying, partying, weird Google searches and precious little direct evidence.

If folks covering major trials like this want to refer to themselves as journalists, they should be willing to abide by the Society of Professional Journalist’s code of ethics. Two tenets of that code particularly come to mind:

Journalists should: 1) Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity. 2) Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

Anyone paying any attention at all to the coverage of this trial will know that most reporting and opining on the case ignored these principles, among many others.
Every day, bad people are tried, convicted and put away for hurting or killing children. There is an arrest, a thorough investigation, a trial and a judgment.

These are not followed by shouting heads and irresponsible nightly commentary. Of course, these cases don't generate millions in ad revenue dollars, so they are ignored by national media, but covered quietly and routinely by local media – mostly newspapers.

Our justice system isn't broken -- the Anthony prosecutors didn't have the goods. You can't judge a system based on a handful of high-profile cases. What's broken is our journalism in the Age of Entertainment.

People on HLN, CNN, Fox, and elsewhere have embarrassed themselves for the three years since the baby’s body was found, and it got worse during the trial. And yet, people watch, unable to look away – the Age of Entertainment in all its horrible glory.

Coverage of this case created a set of fun house mirrors by which the process was distorted beyond recognition. Had there been cameras and microphones only, that would have been one thing. But at every possible opportunity, “experts” of every sort filled momentary gaps in the action with all manner of speculation and theorizing, most of it relatively mindless sound bites.

That’s not journalism. It’s garish entertainment.

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