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Globalization, among other aspects, has expanded the art of journalism beyond territorial and continental boundaries. Today's media stars have outlets that enable them to reach billions of people in record time. The media's effect on culture cannot be overstated; it affects finances, fashion, food, and movies, among other facets of human life. Given that certain media users will not be open to any other method for checking the evidence, they assume what is claimed to be real. The onus, therefore, is on the reporters and editors in the media industry to verify and counter-check their sources of information before they can release it to the public (De Bruycker, Iskander, and Jan, 453).
“The West Memphis three”
“The West Memphis three” is a case of media coverage that largely failed the test of objectivity in releasing information about the suspected murderers of three boys. Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch were reported missing after being seen taking bike rides around their home in West Memphis, Arkansas. Police search unearthed the naked bodies of the boys the following day with their hands tied to their ankles using shoe lace strings. That discovery instituted police investigation and trials. Three suspects were put on trial, popularly known as “The West Memphis Three”. Rumors began doing the rounds that the murders were related to occult activity. These allegations were supported by the fact that one of the three boys was found with his pennies skinned and the scrotum removed. This being a tragic story that captured the imaginations of the public, it was taken up by popular media.
Media houses as we know them are engaged in the business of news-making. Although most media establishments pledge to maintain objectivity and professionalism in reportage, they sometimes give in to forces of sensationalism and the craze by the public to get information (Molek Kozakowska, et al 2013, 130). The leading media houses pride themselves in being the first to break the news to the public and in so doing, are continuously engaged in completion against their rivals in the industry. In the case of the West Memphis three, it was observed that most of the media houses had taken a biased stand in favor of the victims; they took the view that the suspects were innocent. The conflicting initial statement from Jessie, one of the suspects became good fodder for media analysis. The fact that media’s conflicting observations with the investigative authorities regarding the duration of the questioning and whether or not the suspect had recanted his testimony formed material for the press. It was noted during the trial process that certain crucial details regarding the case were left out by most of the media houses. Perhaps this could have been deliberate or the editorial teams thought that such information was too technical for their clients to comprehend.
The trial of the “West Memphis Three” was also interesting in the way the media reinforced the sympathies of the public towards the suspect. By pointing out the inconsistencies on the suspects’ testimonies, the newsmakers created the impression that the state had coerced the suspects into giving testimonies. In most countries, the media has adopted the tag of “The Fourth Estate” and arrogated themselves the duty of defending the public (Hampton, 2010,150). They portray the public as vulnerable culprits to the misdeeds of the state. This scenario has resulted in numerous conflicts between the media and the traditional arms of government; executive, legislature and judiciary. In most cases, the media houses that conflict with the government the most are loved by the public. They would sell themselves using such catch words as “Bold” “Incisive” and “Fearless”. Their propensity to live up to these slogans sometimes leads news reporters to supply news items which misrepresent the facts.
The craze of the public for “extra” news has led to the propagation of what is commonly referred to as “gutter press”. These are tabloids that capitalize on sensational news items for a hungry public that is tired of mainstream news channels (Diehl 2014, 105). The established mainstream media strives to only broadcast news items that are well researched and follow a strict code of conduct overseen by regulatory bodies. Contravention of such provisions as misrepresentation of facts could lead to libel cases in court or suffer the cancellation of their licenses. Low skilled journalists would give in to the gutter press, a sector that is largely unregulated to spread sensational news items. Although, news arising from such sources are quite entertaining to the readers, it can lead to serious character assassination of known personalities. Publishers of such papers have no qualms writing such secretive stories about sex and witchcraft regarding famous people in society. However, the personalities involved may not bother following up on such news items because they are not considered authentic and credible by the larger public.
Part of the evidence that informed the conviction of the three, as reported in the media, was based on the interviewing of a suspected “Satanist”, Misskelley. He was also framed as a suspect and given that he had tattoos on his body and other marks that portrayed him as an occultist, he was a ready suspect. The three were sentenced to life imprisonment despite lack of physical evidence linking them to the vice. Later after the release of the three, it was realized that he had been forced to confess that he knew the fellow suspects and that he had participated in the murder of the three boys (Graber, Doris and Johanna, 2014, 350).
As much as the media may have subtly been seen to be on the side of the suspects in this case, their capitalization on stories relating to grotesque activities of the suspects in satanic rituals portrayed them as guilty in the eyes of the public. This case brought to the fore two crimes; one of murder and the other of engagement in witchcraft-like activities. The public seemed to have looked at both crimes and condemned the suspects on both counts (Ellis, 2015, 370). Even if the justice system at the time could have found the three innocent of the crime of murder, the public could still have condemned them on account of Satanism. The media, in its quest to provide “juicy” stories about the three could have influenced the judicial process. It is also possible that the public could never be convinced that the three suspects were innocent even where complete evidence was lacking. Satanic activities are considered to be phantom-like whose scope is beyond human investigative capacity. Condemnation of people suspected in this practice is therefore based on fantasy and here say.
The campaign that led to the release of the three from incarceration gave them a fair chance to recount their tales from a rational point of view. The public gained insight from the happenings behind the popular media stories which they had not been privy to before. The damage that media stories can do is enormous and utmost care must be taken to ensure that what is published is backed by facts (Graber, et al 2014, 400). The media should not respond to the public hunger to obtain sensational stories on the spot. Whatever is reported should be geared having a well-informed public. This, however, does not mean that media houses should withhold crucial information to the public simply because they haven’t verified all the full details. They should accurately inform the public about important happenings in society and be clear about their sources. Where there are allegations they shouldn’t report the stories as factual. They should also attempt not to influence public opinion on a matter; they need to maintain objectivity and leave the judgment to their audience.
“The San Antonio Four”
In the late 1990s, four women were convicted to life behind bars for a crime of sexual assault against two girls, a niece to one of the women. This was happening at a time when women in the San Antonio area were continuously coming out in public about their lesbian status. The girls accused the women of raping them when they went to spend a week in the house of one of the women. As expected, the media went wild with the story as details about the investigations began to take shape (Callender, 2015, 120) Number of witnesses gave their testimonies including the two minor girls and a medical doctor who confirmed that the vaginal area of the girls showed injury resulting from a foreign object. The four women, who had openly declared that they were lesbians, refused the offer of a 10-year probation period and instead agreed to go to trial. They were not successful in their plea for innocence and as a result, they spent close to fifteen years in jail.
In a landmark turn of events, one of Ramirez’s (the chief ‘suspect’) stepped out to say that she had lied. Apparently, her family had coached her to Frame Ramirez because of their disapproval of her lifestyle. It was later discovered that the doctor’s report was grossly inaccurate. This was an interesting turn of events because it was on the basis of the doctor’s report that a judgment had been made against the “San Antonio Four”. Other inconsistencies about the case had been thrown out deliberately. It seems that the prosecution had already passed a judgment on the women even before the complete trial (The Guardian, 2016)
The coverage of the media about the story gained interest particularly regarding the gay lifestyle in a society that was not completely tolerant of this orientation. The crime of the women therefore was seen to be more about their lifestyle than the crime they had been accused of. The media revelations that the family had been involved points to the general societal views about lesbianism at that point in time. The four were unfortunate to face the wrath of the society on behalf of many other lesbians that had come out in public to declare their lifestyles. In this case, the media stood to represent the sentiments of the society at large. Media houses whose objective is to inform swayed to the general societal views about the gay lifestyle. When such emotive happenings occur in society, they put the news makers in interesting situations. If the media in the San Antonio area decided to take a different view about the case from the general public, it is possible that they could have been condemned as being apologists for the lesbian lifestyles (Easteal, et al 2015, 210). Selling information is a core mandate of the media and revenues are realized based on the perceived reach to the public. Consequently, media outlets that are seen to enjoy wide following from the public attract additional revenue through advertisements. For this reason a myriad tactics are employed to appeal to the customer.
The scare of Homophobia in conservative communities can easily be linked to Satanism (Faxneld, et al 2016, 300). In most of the dominant religions, sex with the same gender is considered a sin. Members who take this path therefore are seen to be agents of Satan who must be punished. When these values contradict with the secular laws of the land, the justice system becomes a smokescreen for what the intentions of the people are. The media must correct this bias by being the sober voice. Common people have no time or intention to seek further clarification and dig behind the sources of the information they read. Even when a media house has misrepresented the facts and later own registered an apology, it is usually placed without the prominence of the original story.
It is unfortunate that the four women had to spend many precious years behind bars based on carefully crafted falsehoods. Their sexual orientation notwithstanding, the women needed to be treated fairly by the media by reporting only processes that involved the allegations leveled against them.
News makers have a great role to play in shaping public perception, millions of people across the globe read newspapers, browse the internet, listen to radio and watch the Television to catch the latest happenings. Given this enormous responsibility, media practitioners need to exercise restraint especially when reporting about cases of mysterious nature. Satanism and lesbianism are just examples of many other cases that attract the public eye when they get into media space. Overly dwelling on suspects’ personal lifestyles instead of confining reportage on the facts of the accusation has the implication of pre-judging the victim. This has ostensibly led to the wrongful incarceration of innocent citizens. Media owners and news editors must ensure that what is released for public consumption is based on verifiable facts.
Callender, Kevin A. "Understanding Antigay Bias From a Cognitive-Affective-Behavioral Perspective." Journal of homosexuality 62.6 (2015): 782-803.
De Bruycker, Iskander, and Jan Beyers. "Balanced or biased? Interest groups and legislative lobbying in the European news media." Political Communication 32.3 (2015): 453-474.
Diehl, Trevor Hollis. Toward a tabloid press: the impact of news aggregation on content in 12 US news websites. Diss. 2014.
Easteal, Patricia, et al. "How are women who kill portrayed in newspaper media? Connections with social values and the legal system." Women's Studies International Forum. Vol. 51. Pergamon, 2015.
Ellis, Bill. Raising the Devil: Satanism, new religions, and the media. University Press of Kentucky, 2015.
Faxneld, Per, and Jesper Aagaard Petersen. "Cult of Carnality: Sexuality, Eroticism, and Gender in Contemporary Satanism." Sexuality and New Religious Movements (2016): 165.
Gehlbach, Scott, and Konstantin Sonin. "Government control of the media." Journal of Public Economics 118 (2014): 163-171.
Graber, Doris A., and Johanna Dunaway. Mass media and American politics. Cq Press, 2014.
Hampton, Mark. The Fourth Estate ideal in journalism history. na, 2010.
McCombs, Maxwell. Setting the agenda: The mass media and public opinion. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
Molek-Kozakowska, Katarzyna. "Towards a pragma-linguistic framework for the study of sensationalism in news headlines." Discourse & Communication 7.2 (2013): 173-197.
Pettit, Lance. "Ireland's Alternative Press: Writing from the Margins." Irish Communication Review 7.1 (2016): 2.
The guardian, San Antonio Four: women link 'satanic' child abuse convictions to homophobia, April 14 2016, retrieved from www.theguardian.com/us-news on 4th May 2017
1. Callender, Kevin A. "Understanding Antigay Bias From a Cognitive-Affective-Behavioral Perspective." Journal of homosexuality 62.6 (2015): 782-803.
The bias against gay and Lesbians continue to dominate discussions on the streets and in the media. News coverage about persons who subscribe to this lifestyle has been seen to be lopsided and may not present factual information about them. this article examines this in the context of the stereotypes that exist.
2. De Bruycker, Iskander, and Jan Beyers. "Balanced or biased? Interest groups and legislative lobbying in the European news media." Political Communication 32.3 (2015): 453-474.
This article appearing in the Journal of political communication acknowledges that the media is usually skewed towards certain interests. In a research exercise that is based on legislative proposals, the author examines the role of interest groups in media coverage.
3. Diehl, Trevor Hollis. Toward a tabloid press: the impact of news aggregation on content in 12 US news websites. Diss. 2014.
This article is retrieved from the University of Texas Library Website and looks at the emerging news technologies that have also increased the speed at which people consume news. This is a challenge the way news was traditionally organized. It looks at news aggregation and its role in modern news reportage.
4. Easteal, Patricia, et al. "How are women who kill portrayed in newspaper media? Connections with social values and the legal system." Women's Studies International Forum. Vol. 51. Pergamon, 2015.
The writers of this journal article examine the way media commonly treats female offenders. Because society generally views women who commit crime as unnatural, various terms such as ‘bad’ and ‘mad’ have been used against them. they investigate whether media neglects facts that make these women to get involved in these crimes.
5. Ellis, Bill. Raising the Devil: Satanism, new religions, and the media. University Press of Kentucky, 2015.
Bill Ellis retraces the media frenzy about Satanism in the 80s; they were pre-occupied with black masses, ritual abuse, blood rites, grave robbing, vampires and animal mutilation. He examines this against the emerging satanic practices covered in the media.
6. Faxneld, Per, and Jesper Aagaard Petersen. "Cult of Carnality: Sexuality, Eroticism, and Gender in Contemporary Satanism." Sexuality and New Religious Movements (2016): 165.
The authors of this journal article explore the relationship between Satanism and sex. Since olden days pornographic materials have had titles related to Satan. This scenario is examined along with magazines that depict Satan as sexually randy and lustful.
7. Gehlbach, Scott, and Konstantin Sonin. "Government control of the media." Journal of Public Economics 118 (2014): 163-171.
This article appears in the Journal of Public Economics and talks about the situations where media establishments often come under the scrutiny of the state. The authors examine this relationship and how it portends on the role of the media to inform the public.
8. Graber, Doris A., and Johanna Dunaway. Mass media and American politics. Cq Press, 2014.
This book examines the proliferation of media outlets in the face of regulatory policies. It focuses on the rights of the public to information and the government’s role to protect the public to damaging news items.
9. Hampton, Mark. The Fourth Estate ideal in journalism history. na, 2010.
In this chapter of the book, Hampton revisits the concept of the fourth estate as outlined by Edmund Burke in reference to the press gallery in the late eighteenth century. In this book, the author’s opinion is that the media as the fourth estate has the genuine political power.
10. McCombs, Maxwell. Setting the agenda: The mass media and public opinion. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
The role of media in setting public opinion is analyzed in this book based on common perceptions. It is noted that in most of the public dialogues, the media occupies an important and, sometimes, a controversial role. The media is seen to be continuously shaping public discourse
11. Molek-Kozakowska, Katarzyna. "Towards a pragma-linguistic framework for the study of sensationalism in news headlines." Discourse & Communication 7.2 (2013): 173-197.
This is an article that talks about the packaging of news in a way that the news items are more interesting and appealing to the consumers. Examples are drawn from various editions of the ‘most read’ mid-market British tabloid, Daily Mail compiled in 2012
12. Pettit, Lance. "Ireland's Alternative Press: Writing from the Margins." Irish Communication Review 7.1 (2016): 2.
Pettit unfurls the challenges faced by alternative media in Ireland. They suffer from low to no funding and are unattractive to advertisers. That defines alternative media based on social and political contexts in Ireland in 1990s.
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