From the Editors’ Desk: Excessive media coverage of Casey Anthony trial undermines the credibility of journalism

by Kassondra Cloos, News Editor

Over the past few weeks, Casey and Caylee Anthony have become household names. Images of a distressed young “tot mom” at court, as HLN’s Nancy Grace dubbed the older Anthony, dominated U.S. media. For far too many days in a row, Anthony was the first story on my Google News page.

I’ll admit—I bit the bait. Since I started interning at Al Jazeera English in Washington, D.C. last month, I’ve become a news junkie. It’s impossible not to be when new wires from the Associated Press and Reuters flash on your computer screen literally every ten seconds. But I read about the Anthony trial with caution, and the only reason I indulged the sensationalism of the news agencies that covered the story so excessively (Al Jazeera did not cover it at all) was because, well, I was fascinated by the fascination.

To be frank, I was disgusted by it. The media convicted Casey Anthony long before her trial began. The public outrage that occurred after the announcement she would not be convicted of murder came in response to speculation on behalf of the media. I read probably two-dozen articles about the trial, and there were definitely questions that the prosecution was not able to answer. There was no cause of death, no proven motivation for murder, no explanation for the duct tape on Caylee’s skull, and the list goes on. Calling the victim “little Caylee,” or “sweet Caylee,” and classifying the suspect as “tot mom” and conveying belief in her guilt is not accurate or good journalism. It’s not journalism at all—it’s just an opinion. But opinions broadcast by powerful people in powerful places are often misconstrued as fact.
When Christine Lagarde, the successor to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was asked in a recent press conference about the DSK rape scandal, she declined to answer in favor of more relevant topics. But one thing she did say is that innocence is “valued the world over,” and she wished the media in the United States gave more respect to innocence before condemning individuals prematurely.

Despite popular belief about Anthony’s involvement with her daughter’s death, despite the hoards of people who traveled to Orlando to wait in line for hours to catch a glimpse of her during the trial and despite the commentary from the media, Anthony was given a fair trial and the prosecution failed to make a strong enough case against her. This is real life, these are real people but, unfortunately, the situation was treated as entertainment.

There are thousands of people in the United States alone who are killed or abducted each year, but think about who you’ve seen on TV. How many two-year-old African American boys have you seen? How many teenage Hispanics? The death of a child is not to be taken lightly, but the fascination with Caylee Anthony’s death can classified as what’s known as Missing White Woman Syndrome. When the victim is a pretty little white girl, everyone seems to care. But when the victim is a person of color, he or she often gets zero news coverage.

This kind of sensationalism is, unfortunately, what sells. And what I find most unfortunate about my prospective career is that news is a business. If you haven’t read anything about the phone hacking scandal, you might be interested to know that one of the best-selling newspapers in the U.K. is publishing its last issue Sunday because the public is outraged by tactics the staff used to acquire information. In one case the paper, the News of the World, part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, hacked into the voice mail of a girl who had been abducted, deleting newer messages to make room for more as the mailbox started to fill up. Her family soon caught on that her voicemail had been accessed, and had false hope that she was alive. Her body was later found.

The right to freedom of the press is a privilege not enjoyed by every nation, but it is one that, when abused, undermines the mission of what should be a public service. Without journalists to alert the public of corporate and political corruption, who would hold them accountable? As journalists, we need to be responsible in telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and be accountable to the public. We need to cover what’s important, and not determine importance by advertising revenue, ethnicity of the affected or sensationalism.

It’s exhausting to defend the integrity of journalism to some of my friends who seem to find little but fault in the profession. For them, news organizations don’t have enough accountability, they’re too sensational, there are too many unintelligent journalists and they don’t get things right. But for me, it’s worth it to defend the news, because I know how necessary freedom of information is to a successful society and I know there are good journalists out there. Objectivity and good news judgment are priceless and essential characteristics of journalism, and the public needs to demand that by not being so easily duped by sensational stories.

Kassondra Cloos currently serves as a News Editor for The Pendulum and is interning for the summer with Al Jazeera English in Washington, D.C.

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