Thursday, July 11, 2013

Bad "Journalism" Drives Me Crazy

Let me just say from the outset that I have not been following the daily ins and outs of the George Zimmerman trial.  All of the surrounding back and forth on the death and evidence of murder and witness blah-bity-blah is not something I have followed closely, nor have I read any of the trial transcripts to get a feel for any of the motions arguments or cross-examination specifics from either side.  So I am in no way making any comment on the lawyering involved in the trial or the evidence therein.

That said, here is my beef of the day on something that just hit me the wrong way this morning.

If you are a "journalist" and you are covering a trial in a court of law, then this is an actual legal beat that requires you to at least have some familiarity with trial procedure and common legal practices if you are going to report on them in any way that is accurate and informative to the public.  If you do not have this familiarity with legal procedure and courtroom practice, then please for the love of all that is holy befriend a lawyer who specializes in the particular type of law that is being practiced and ask them rudimentary questions that might, perhaps, inform your writing so that you do not mislead the public.

If it is a criminal trial, ask a lawyer who actually practices criminal law regularly.  If it is a civil action, ask someone who specializes in that type of work.  Legal work is complex, and specialized knowledge is crucial in understanding nuance and details, even on routine and simple matters.

Case in point, this from People magazine, which admittedly is not exactly a hardcore journalistic outlet, but still ought to hold itself to some standards:
A judge on Thursday will rule on whether to allow the jury in the Trayvon Martin case to consider additional charges against defendant George Zimmerman – which would allow him to be convicted of lesser crimes if he is acquitted of murder. 
Prosecutors are asking the judge to let the jury consider manslaughter and aggravated assault when they begin deliberations on Friday...  (emphasis mine)
These are decidedly not additional charges. That is an inaccurate representation, one that is played up prominently in their title "George Zimmerman Trial:  Judge Considers More Charges."

These are not more charges -- they are lesser included ones, which is a whole other thing.

Sensationalism may get you more clicks, but inaccuracy leads the public to think the prosecutors are piling on extra stuff when, in fact, they are hedging their bets and trying to spread their possibility for a conviction out for what is called lesser included offenses.

In legal reporting, precision in your language matters a great deal.

This is not, in fact, adding more charges, but is in reality a more interesting tell on the part of the state's attorneys: this is something that a prosecutor who is unsure of his potential for conviction and the strength of his case does to try to give the jury some hook, any hook, even a far lesser one than that on which you indicted the defendant, on which to convict.  In the ego-driven legal world, asking for lesser included charges to be considered is a sign of weakness that lawyers generally try to avoid if they are on very firm ground, but which they will seek with blustery conviction when they feel like they may be on shaky ground.

In other words, instead of adding extra charges, they are giving the jury a menu of lots of possible charges.

It gives the jury the potential to choose from a list of charges that begins with intentional murder at the top and goes all the way down to an accidental death that the defendant may not have intended based on actions that were randomly dangerous and reckless but that maybe he didn't intend to have result in a death when he did them.  It lists every possible charge from the highest to the lowest all thrown out in a possible pile to give the jury something...anything...that they might throw at Zimmerman if they think he is in any way wrong in what he did, but where the jurors may be uncomfortable with calling it murder outright.

You can see how dangling lots of choices in front of a jury who might not fully trust or like the defendant's version of events, but not completely buy each and every element of the heavier charge of absolute murder either, might be more likely to result in a conviction of some sort, right?

When the state is moving for this, it says they are worried about reasonable doubt on the part of the jury for the full charge, that perhaps their case as presented at trial was not as rock solid as they had hoped or that defense counsel has done some unexpected damage during the trial itself, and so they ask for some lesser included's to be considered as well.  Defense counsel will likely oppose this, because they only want the state to have to prove the most stringent and difficult to sustain charge, making reasonable doubt acquittal more likely for their client.

Very often, you also get this motion the other way around: when the state's case is very, very strong, defense counsel will move for lesser included charges to try to play to the jury's sympathy so they convict on a lesser charge to try to avoid life in prison or the death penalty as a potential end sentence, and the state will oppose that motion to try to force the jury's hand in terms of taking sympathy off the table -- you see this in really heinous crimes like multiple murders, serial killers, or pretty much anything gruesome involving young kids.

All this to say, the details on this matter.  Getting the lead and the information in the article itself wrong misleads your readership, and it misses the larger point that the prosecutors who made this motion are hedging their bets because they have doubts about the strength of their evidence as presented.  THAT is a much more interesting story, and entirely lost when you misstate what the motion's meaning and consequences are.

Journalism requires precision in the writing, as well as understanding of the subject matter to be done well. People Magazine fails here entirely.

(Photo via Darren Smith.)

1 comment:

bg said...

Christy, I can't tell you how much I appreciate seeing these words on your page here today. It reminds me of when I first would read your clear-eyed and well-written explanations of legal matters, especially for those of us not specialized in all the ways you are.

What is even better, from my perspective, is reading your words knowing what you are going through and have suffered, particularly this last round of chemo.

I hope you can appreciate how strong and clear you are and how prosaic, if that be the proper word, with your words this week.

Here's to your health, your happiness and your home. Love to you.