True crime. We only have to glance sideways at a television or streaming platform to see how obsessed we are with it – from police procedurals to courtroom dramas with storylines pulled from real headlines, serial killer documentaries, unsolved cases, and so, so much more.
“Trial by media” is a phrase that has insinuated itself into our vocabulary over the past 30 years or so, being defined as “the impact of television and newspaper coverage on a person’s reputation by creating a widespread perception of guilt or innocence before, or after, a verdict in a court of law.” It’s also the title of a six-episode documentary series that highlights six cases that were tried in the court of public opinion in recent decades.
These include the murder following a straight man, Jonathan Schmitz, being told on a trashy talk show that a man he knew had a secret crush on him; and Bernhard Goetz, dubbed the “Subway Vigilante”, who shot four men on a subway train in New York.
Perhaps one of the most famous (but not included in this series) cases is that of the trial of OJ Simpson – often characterised as the trial of the century because of its international publicity, which spanned 11 months, from the jury’s swearing-in on 9 November 1994 until the verdict was announced less than a year later, when Simpson was acquitted on two counts of murder.
But inviting the public into the courtroom began long before that, with a trial in 1983 that was broadcast by CNN, and is covered in Trial By Media, in a tough-to-watch episode. Cheryl Ann Araujo, 21 years old at the time, was raped by four men in a tavern in New Bedford, Massachusetts, while other patrons watched but did not intervene.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because you’re thinking of the movie The Accused, for which Jodie Foster went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as the woman attacked, and Kelly McGillis (Top Gun, and if you remember her in that role, do NOT Google a pic of her, it will only upset you and make you feel really old) as an assistant district attorney prosecuting the case.
Before pointing fingers at the media, however, it’s important to remember it feeds a public hunger, with the dark newsroom saying “if it bleeds, it leads”.
Araujo’s story is a tragic one – the young mother of two died in a car crash in 1986 after escaping her home town where she was ostracised, and moving to Florida. Not only was her identity revealed to the entire world through the CNN coverage, but during the controversial trial, the defendants’ attorneys cross-examined Araujo so extensively about her own life and activities that the case became widely seen as a template for “blaming the victim” in rape cases.
The courts later admonished the press for releasing her name, a slap on the wrist that had zero effect. Before pointing fingers at the media, however, it’s important to remember it feeds a public hunger, with the dark newsroom saying “if it bleeds, it leads”.
If you’re still not convinced, Court TV is “devoted to live gavel-to-gavel coverage, in-depth legal reporting and expert analysis of the nation’s most important and compelling trials. The network runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week” and can be found on pretty much every platform available.
Trial By Media, as a series, doesn’t bring much new information to the table, but it does serve to illustrate the background of the general morbid lust humans have to this day, with crime tales old and new.
Says Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune: “Trial by Media constitutes good, solid recappery in the realm of true crime and 50 shades of quality in the world of press coverage of high-profile legal sweepstakes. The series title suggests a hit job on the media, which it isn’t.
“Nor is it in the bag for the media, despite the ardent First Amendment cred of executive producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov (Good Night and Good Luck). It’s rightly troubled by just about everything: the press, the judicial and legal system, trash TV, laws that would outlaw trash TV, all of it.”