New-media documentary probes media’s impact on criminal justice system;‘Juror Number Six’ explores how media influences juries & death penalty
Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and Bentley College professor Rachel Lyon was producing a PBS documentary on the impact of racial bias on capital crime cases when it hit her.
While chronicling the cases of two black defendants facing the death penalty, Lyon realized that the media’s role had fundamentally changed. Far from merely reporting objectively on such cases, she says, the media had become an active participant in the judicial process, with its incessant reporting on crime—and excessive focus on the race of criminal defendants—influencing juries and impacting sentences.
“It became clear that our ‘crime-soaked media culture’ of TV news tends to present minorities as potentially dangerous criminals, while reinforcing perceptions that white, middle-class people are at great risk of being violently attacked by people of color,” Lyon says. “These misperceptions reverberate through our criminal justice system, where studies have shown that if a jury has five-or-more white male members, the defendant jumps to a staggering 70% chance of receiving the death penalty.”
The result of Lyon’s epiphany is Juror Number Six, a 12-minute video documentary that explores the symbiotic relationship between the media, crime and the judicial system. Through interviews with legal and communications experts, Juror Number Sixexamines how today’s 24/7 news culture and television dramas such as CSI and Law & Order creates a climate of around-the-clock crime coverage.
“Crime has been going down for years, and yet it gets reported five, six hundred percent more than it used to be because of the 24-hour news cycles and the need to feed that entertainment beast,” says Andrea Lyon, sister of the filmmaker and director of DePaul University’s Center for Justice in Capital Cases. “All the research shows that people who watch local television are more afraid of crime than people who don’t.”
Juror Number Six also examines the impact of one of the most infamous trials of the 20th century: the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
“This was the ultimate crime story,” Joe Domanick, Senior Fellow for Criminal Justice, of USC’s Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism, says in the documentary. “You had race, you had violence, you had sex, you had sports—it all came together.” The Simpson trial also created a national appetite for court-related media coverage.
“Before O.J. Simpson, there was no Greta Van Susteren on On the Record,” says Charles Ogletree Jr., director of Harvard University’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. “Before O.J. Simpson, there was no Nancy Grace. Before O.J. Simpson, we didn’t have these programs that can around-the-clock cover crime and news the way that it does.”
Much of that crime coverage, observers say, disproportionately focuses on minorities. “Crimes that get covered the most are crimes in which the victim is white,” says Renee Ferguson, an investigative reporter for NBC 5 News in Chicago. “The mug shots of people who’ve been picked up, they’re often black.”
Ogletree agrees. “You see drugs, you see police, you see sirens, you see handcuffs,” he says. “And you see people in prison and in jails.”
Juror Number Six explores the impact of television crime dramas like CSI and Law & Order, which some legal experts say present an overly optimistic picture of a criminal justice system where attorneys, judges and jurors of color abound and miscarriages of justice are few. In reality, America’s legal system is overwhelmingly white: minority defendant are up to 30 times more likely to be sentenced to death than a white defendant convicted of the same crime.
“You might not think media-influenced perceptions matter that much,” NBC’s Renee Ferguson remarks. “But when you bring those perceptions into a jury room, it does matter. …Do you really want decisions like that to be influenced by what a juror saw on cable TV last night?”
Juror Number Six will be broadcast this September on the National Black Programming Consortium website, as part of the Masculinity Project which is a collaboration between Blackpublicmedia.Org and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), with generous support from the Ford Foundation. The Masculinity Project will include digital revisions of classic documentary works, specifically commissioned short pieces for the web (audio and video), and finally the community voice, in the shape of an outreach campaign with local community organizations across the nation, viewer interaction on the web.
Juror Number Six is produced by Lioness Media Arts, Inc. The producer and director is Rachel Lyon. The writer is Christine Intagliata. Funding for Juror Number Six was provided by The Ford Foundation, Bentley College, DePaul University, and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.