Should the legal system and the media mix?
Lauren Gollop discusses whether the various trends and influences of modern media are wrongly becoming apparent within our justice systems.
Today, we have unprecedented, somewhat limitless, access to information, and to humankind, more than ever before. Unless you have been living under a rock recently, you will be well-acquainted with the infamous defamation case of Depp v Heard, which created a six-week online storm. Celebrity culture and its triviality is often a hot topic for media outlets since it promises interaction, but they take particular advantage when intertwined with a lawsuit or crime; bandwagoning and polarised opinions generate immense economic value for modern media. But should the media mix with the legal system, particularly in complicated, sensitive trials, where there is a string of conflicting evidence? Are we even capable of forming individual, balanced opinions in a world where we are fed profitable clickbait as ‘news’?
The frenzy and uproar regarding the trial can be traced to three key elements: the mass media speculation that further encouraged engagement and bandwagoning; an entire lack of personal discernment online, and lastly an extended conflict due to the post-trail debate regarding whether Depp’s team undermined the media’s power. While full trials are never broadcast in the UK, Virginia law allowed its streaming on Court TV, as well as Law & Crime’s YouTube channel, which claimed viewership consequently peaked at 1,247,163. Chief judge, Penny Azcarte, purportedly saw no good reason not to keep the proceedings open to observers. Likely, she did not anticipate the levels of interest or power of modern social media.
In the age of TikTok and its cunning algorithm, the trial became a sensationalised spectacle of snippets and soundbites, and the longer you lingered, the more content was filtered to you, ingraining into mass personal consciousness. A lawyer for Depp, Camille Vasquez, became a public heron- one Tiktoker even got a tattoo of her silhouette, underpinned by the word, ‘OBJECTION’ in bold.
The growth of social media enables public interest to rapidly spread enhancing the possibilities to influence a case’s verdict. Parallels can be drawn to the 1994 OJ Simpson murder trial. The media offered a platform for people to voice opinions and concerns about race. A less digitised era, but similar, dichotomous views; did he, or did he not, do it? Inevitably here, witnesses are dissuaded from testifying, fearful of backlash and controversy. When people ‘know’ and admire a public figure, it can be difficult to equate them with such heinous acts. Years later, he was sentenced for his connections to a robbery, and according to CNN, Americans who believed OJ committed murder increased by 17%. Nonetheless, the case pinpointed the public’s ability to drive legal change.
The most outrageous trial… in terms of hate being vented since the OJ Simpson caseBarry Levine
Further, there are concerns about the wider aftermath of the online trial. Investigative journalist, Barry Levine, referred to the case as “the most outrageous trial… in terms of hate being vented since the OJ Simpson case”. Both social conformity and the tribal desire to be amongst the crowd are only intensified by modern social media, which lacks nuance. For many Depp was portrayed as a hero and Heard as a villain, or vice versa, but there was rarely a middle-ground narrative.
With the rise of “cancel culture”, and public ‘accountability’, those in the public eye face consequences which are two-fold- not only do you pay for your wrongdoings, but you are also ostracised from society. We recognise the modern media’s bashful bandwagoning culture and risk to mental health, and yet mass online hounding continues to get out of hand. Social media’s involvement in the legal system can be an excellent force for change, by giving lay people a voice, especially since people have grown to distrust the government and the legal system’s ability to provide justice; it is simultaneously progressive, yet detrimental, for democracy, as the modern quest for justice has become tarnished.
“Outrage is sometimes necessary, but is it always directed constructively?”
The solution is a personal one when it comes to using social media today and using discernment online, as newsworthy content is that which creates a divide. Obviously, the less we engage in profitable clickbait, the less demand there will be for this type of content, but this is part and parcel of living in our capitalist, modern society. However, there are examples of pages on Instagram such as ‘Impact’ that aim to provide unbiased ‘infographics’ on current topics. Aim to diversify your consumption. Outrage is sometimes necessary, but is it always directed constructively? In today’s online world, we are more connected than ever in our ways of thinking, but perhaps not in empathy.