Analyzing media impact in Noura Jackson case   

April 7, 2011

Noura Jackon’s trial may have taken place two years ago, but this case has continued to gain media attention.

Opinions vary with regard to the effects media has on the legal system. While many people insist that the media does not determine the outcome of a trial, others are skeptical about the damage the publicity can cause.

The Jackson case opened several new doors for advancements and experimentation with technology. Jackson’s trial was the first time blogging was allowed in a Memphis courtroom. This gave reporters the opportunity to share with the public what was occurring each day in court, as it happened. 

Judge Chris Craft, who presided over the Jackson case, said he welcomed the live blogging in the courtroom.

“I’m an advocate for the First Amendment,” Craft said. “When we start concealing what we do in the courtrooms our country can get really messed up.”

Check out what else Judge Craft has to say about blogging.

Criminal Court Judge John Fowlkes has been involved with the legal system as both a lawyer and a judge for over 20 years. Several cases he has dealt with have been of high media interest. He has not had a problem with the media during any of his trials.

“I believe judges control what happens in the courtroom,” Fowlkes said. “In cases where there have been high media attention and cameras and things of that nature, I have noticed very little difference in my courtroom.”

However, Valerie Corder’s opinions of media impact differ greatly. Corder, the lead defense attorney in the Jackson case, does not think that the media can be fair when covering a case and indicated that her client was not happy about all the public attention surrounding her trial.

“She (Noura Jackson) wanted the media to leave,” Corder said. “She felt like it was exposing her mother.”

Charles Mitchell, a local defense attorney who is now representing Jackson in her court appeal, said that clients are always concerned with media coverage of their cases, however, his top priority is the trial proceedings.

“It’s not a violation of one’s rights,” Mitchell said. “I think the local media for the most part, is biased against the defendant and I don’t have a problem with that. There is just a bias against defendants because people don’t like criminals.”

Amy Weirich, Shelby County District Attorney and former prosecutor in the Jackson case, said media coverage was not her focus during the trial, but did notice many inaccuracies in the reporting. 

“I would watch the evening news and see a segment about what happened in court and think ‘Hm, that’s not what really happened’ or ‘That’s not completely accurate,’” she said. “But you have to bear in mind where they are coming from, the information that they have and the job that they’re doing, which is true of everyone, no matter what their job is. Who you are affects how you receive information and who you are affects how you communicate that information.”

Pretrial Publicity

According to a 1991 study of media coverage by behavioral science researcher Bruce Bower, pretrial publicity can affect the outcome of a trial. 

“New evidence indicates that exposure to pretrial publicity substantially increases the likelihood that jurors will convict the accused,” Bower said, “and demonstrates the standard techniques used by judges and lawyers to reduce juror biases usually fail.”

Judge John Fogleman was the  lead prosecutor in the case of the Arkansas juveniles convicted in the gruesome murder of three little boys. The defendants have become known as the West Memphis Three and celebrities and other influentials are publicly questioning the guilty verdict. As a prosecutor, Fogleman was the center of the sensational 1994 case and he found that pretrial publicity can impact a court case.

“Of course as a prosecutor, after a crime occurs – especially a murder – we are very concerned about media because whatever is disclosed to the public can potentially affect the way people view a crime when it comes to trial,” he said. “I do wish the media would show a little restraint sometimes in the words they use to describe things because sometimes [the words] create kind of a frenzy.”

However, not everyone is in agreement with Judge Fogleman. Tim Helldorfer, one of the homicide detectives who investigated the Jackson case, said he was not worried about the publicity prior to the trial.

“I really don’t think there was ever any concern about the excessive media coverage of the case because all of the people we talked to (during the investigation) were a lot of kids who didn’t pay attention to the news and what was reported,” he said. “The street talk, that’s more of an influence than the media because somebody’s saying something that’s taken out of context or it’s a rumor, not a fact. But (the kids) will report it to you as fact.” 

Valerie Orleans is the Internal Communications Director at California State University-Fullerton and has written several articles for major publications including, the Los Angeles Times and Dateline online. Her 2004 article, 
Pretrial Publicity: Does it Impact Verdicts?, helps to validate Helldorfer’s observations. Orleans determined that there is usually an extensive lapse of time between when an individual is arrested and when the trial actually occurs – anywhere from 10 months to three years. During this time, the public will often forget the previous coverage regarding the event and the defendant. This gives jurors the opportunity to focus solely on the facts presented during the trial. 

However, Orleans did note that other studies have found pretrial publicity may not directly affect the juror’s viewpoint, but could make it more difficult to reach a verdict in an unbiased manner.

Cameras in the courtroom

One of the first forms of electronic media permitted in the courtroom was video cameras. In 1981, Florida was the first state to allow live television coverage in the courtroom during the
 Chandler v. Florida case. By 1995, all states except for Indiana, Mississippi and South Dakota allowed television cameras in their trial or appellate courts. Today, all 50 states allow some type of video camera in the courtroom. 

This type of media coverage was upheld in a 2009 opinion of the Supreme Court of Minnesota in which the judges wrote, “The evidence seems clear that cameras themselves do not impact the actual in-court proceedings.”

The state of Tennessee has a protocol system that is dictated by the state Supreme Court, which allows one stationary camera in the courtroom. Over the years, it is something that people have become accustomed to. 

“I remember a time when lawyers reacted differently to cameras in the courtroom,” Fowlkes said. “They were a little more animated. However, since I have been on the bench, I have seen no noticeable change of performance in cases I have dealt with in my courtroom.”

Barbara Cochran, former president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Foundation, testified in a 2005 U. S. Senate Committee hearing that cameras were not  a problem in the court room.  According to Cochran “Jurors, prosecutors, lawyers, witnesses and judges on both the state and federal levels have overwhelmingly reported for the last decade that the unobtrusive camera has not had an adverse impact on trials or appellate proceedings.”

However, for those involved in the Noura Jackson case, feelings about the camera are mixed. 

Both defense attorney Mitchell and former prosecutor Weirich said they are not bothered by the presence of the camera in the courtroom, since their attention is directed towards the ongoing trial. Weirich also noted, from her experience, that juries do not pay attention to the cameras. 

Helldorfer holds the same opinion as Mitchell and Weirich, even though he sees the camera from a different angle as he often testifies in court.

“They always have it [the camera] tucked aside,” he said, “and if I’m being asked a question I’m focusing on the attorneys. I never realize it’s there.”

Arthur Quinn, one of Jackson’s defense attorney’s is not a supporter and believes that a camera should not be allowed in the courtroom. He thinks that only in the rarest occasions would any type of medium present during a trial benefit a client. 

Corder, lead defense attorney in the Jackson case, agrees with Quinn and claims that the camera changes the entire dynamic of a trial.

Jackson's former friend, Sophie Cooley, 23, who was called to testify in the 2009 trial, was bothered by the camera in the courtroom. 
"I was just terrified, Cooley said. "I had never been in a courtroom. Everyone was watching it. Word for word (the lawyers) were drilling you. Now everyone’s streaming it live on their computer." 

Read a Q & A with Sophie Cooley.

TV vs. Print Media

The Jackson case gained a significant amount of local and national attention. Television stations were quick to broadcast highlights about the case, and Jackson graced the cover of countless Memphis and Mid-South newspapers. Although both forms of media were disseminating the story to the public, the final product was often different.

Though Fowlkes was not the judge presiding over the Jackson trial, he does have general opinions about how coverage changes between television and print. 

 “TV seems to sensationalize more than the print media,” he said, “but that’s just the nature of the beast. Ratings are important and they [television reporters] are trying to get a certain type of information out to the public.”

Watch an interview with Judge Fowlkes.

Craft noted that TV reporters tend to go live from the trial whenever they have a break, and in doing so, often miss some of the key facts and important witness testimony.

In the Jackson case, Quinn believes that print media effectively covered the case in a nonbiased manner, while the television stations did not.

“[Television reporters] are not interested in portraying the case fairly or objectively – they just want something exciting,” he said.

Helldorfer stated that the inaccuracy of broadcast media often stems from being at the forefront and wanting to break the news to the public. Newspaper reporters tend to be slower, yet more accurate. 

Regardless of the type of media, Weirich stressed that accuracy is key, and getting the facts should always be the top priority for reporters.

“Whether your print or broadcast media,” she said, “make sure that you’ve covered all the angles, that you’ve talked to the major sources, and, most importantly, that you listen carefully.”

Story by Lauren Lee

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