MEDIA WATCH: Trial by media gets underway with arrest of Scott Peterson

The Laci Peterson case has been widely covered by the media since her Christmas Eve disappearance. Even so, the mid-April identification of her remains and those of her unborn child on the shores of San Francisco Bay - and the subsequent arrest of her husband Scott - brought the national coverage to a whole new level.

The Laci Peterson case has been widely covered by the media since her Christmas Eve disappearance. Even so, the mid-April identification of her remains and those of her unborn child on the shores of San Francisco Bay - and the subsequent arrest of her husband Scott - brought the national coverage to a whole new level.

Within this coverage, Media Watch examined reporting on the role of the media in the case. The reporting has first and foremost addressed the intense coverage that the case has sparked. Several reports positioned the publicity as helpful in getting the public involved with the search and pressuring authorities to keep on the case. The San Jose Mercury News (April 19) reported that more than 4.5 million visitors had logged on to www.lacipeterson.com, while numerous other stories identified how the case had captured worldwide interest. A few reports tried to pinpoint what it was about this case that struck such a chord with the public. Several cited the heartbreaking emotional component of the story of the attractive, young mother-to-be who disappeared just before one of the biggest family holidays of the year. The infidelity and arrest of her husband added a sordid dimension to the case. With Scott now under arrest for premeditated double-murder, coverage of the media's role has changed. His parents vehemently "insisted their son is a victim of deception and smears by the media and police" (NBC Nightly News, April 20). Their arguments found support among some. Defense attorney Jan Ronis told CNN (April 22), "There has been a rush to judgment, at least by commentators and the press, and it's been based upon these unsubstantiated facts and rumors." About half of the coverage depicted the public as having already made up its mind that Scott is guilty. Both CNN's Larry King (April 21) and MSNBC's Pat Buchanan (April 22) wondered aloud if there was anyone who thought that Scott was innocent, indicating that anyone who did would definitely be in the minority. The concern about the blanket media coverage assuming Scott's guilt has prompted concern about whether he will be able to receive a fair trial, even if there's a change of venue. Famed OJ Simpson defense attorney Robert Shapiro told CNN's Wolf Blitzer (April 22), "Once media trials start, people are instantaneously convicted in the mass media...and we have the presumption of guilt." Finally, a number of reports cast Scott in an unfavorable light, questioning his credibility. Reports cited a host of areas in which Scott's behavior was suspicious - including his adultery (admitted only after the other woman came forward), concern that he might flee to Mexico, the $10,000 cash he was carrying when he was arrested, an insurance policy on Laci, and maps of tidal patterns on his home computer. Scott's dyed hair and sudden goatee were often judged to be a poor attempt at disguise. His explanation that his hair was bleached by chlorine from a neighbor's pool was met with disbelief. Court TV reporter Nancy Grace told CNN (April 21), "I'm not buying that for a minute." Although Scott's actions warrant a lot of explaining, there are calls for the media to be more judicious. A few reports recalled how the media can make the wrong call and ruin someone's life - for example, Richard Jewell's experience after the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta.
  • Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.

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