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Robin L. Barton

Should Coverage of Criminal Cases Focus on Defendant or Victim?

November 22, 2011 10:49:18 am

By Robin L. Barton

To describe the recent U.S. and international media coverage of the Amanda Knox case in Italy as intense would be an understatement. One of the key criticisms of this coverage was that it primarily focused on the defendants—or at least one of them—with the victim, Meredith Kercher, almost forgotten.

So that raises the question: when covering criminal cases, should the focus be on the defendant or the victim?

To review: Knox, or “Foxy Knoxy” and “Angel Face” as she was dubbed in the press, and her boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were convicted of killing Kercher, Knox’s roommate, on Nov. 1, 2007, in a drug-fueled sex game gone bad. At the time of the killing, Knox was 20 years old.

But their convictions were overturned on appeal.

During both the original trial and the appeal, Kercher’s family rightfully pointed out that the victim had essentially been “forgotten.” As her sister Stephanie said, “There are no photos of Meredith in the papers or on the TV—it’s all on Amanda and Raffaele.”

However, being the focus of the media cuts both ways. While the press in the U.S. largely sided with Knox, the media in the U.K. and Italy were much harder on her.

British journalists were obviously more sympathetic to Kercher because she was British. As for the Italian press, the media there have a different approach to criminal trials.

As an American journalist writing for the Guardian noted, investigative journalism isn’t practiced in Italy as it is in the U.S. or Great Britain. And, the journalist noted, Italian reporters may have been afraid that if they deviated from the prosecutor’s version of the events, they’d be arrested or harassed by the police—which actually happened. 

The Knox case is hardly the first in which the attention has been on the defendant rather than the victim.

The O.J. Simpson case is a good example. Most people probably know that one victim was the former football star’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. But how many can name the male victim? (It was Ron Goldman.)

Frustration with the criminal trial and its outcome eventually led Goldman’s family to set up the Ronald Goldman Foundation to assist people who’ve been victims of crime and their families.

The Phil Spector case is another example. Spector was convicted of shooting actress Lana Clarkson to death in a game of Russian roulette. Articles on the case nearly always mention Spector’s career as a music producer and some of the famous musicians he worked with, such as the Beatles, Tina and Ike Turner and the Ronettes. The victim’s name was included almost as an afterthought. 

Of course, the O.J. and Spector cases involved celebrities. And when celebrities are involved in a criminal case, rightfully or wrongly, they become the focus—whether they’re the victim or the defendant.

In fact, such cases likely get a lot of press coverage in the first place because someone famous is involved.

But celebrity wasn’t an issue in the Knox case. Everyone involved was unknown before the crime. So why did Knox become a cause célèbre for the media? Was it simply because she was a young, attractive American in a foreign land?

Or were claims that the crime was the product of a sex game too titillating to ignore?

I think a key factor in the media’s focus on Knox was the fact that her family was a very vocal advocate for her, which in turn drove a lot of the coverage.

While Kercher’s family kept a fairly low profile, Knox’s parents hired a public relations firm, which arranged for them to appear regularly on U.S. morning talk shows and news programs.  

I’d also like to think that part of the appeal for journalists was that this case arguably involved innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. Certainly, much of the American media coverage of the case during the appeal suggested that an injustice had been done when Knox and Sollecito were initially convicted.

I don’t think there is a right answer as to where the focus should be when covering a criminal trial.

Every case is unique. And although crime victims deserve to be remembered, innocent defendants also have a right to have their stories told. At the end of the day, the focus of the coverage will likely be on the aspects of the case that interest the public the most.

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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