Expert: Reporting can play a role in convictions

Drizin


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To read more about the Angie Dodge murder case, go to postregister.com/angie-dodge-murder-case.

Steve Drizin and others who fight wrongful convictions say the media needs to improve crime reporting practices.

Drizin is the former director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions.

Drizin said media organizations should consider how their coverage can impact cases in ways that make wrongful convictions more likely. Drizin has worked on dozens of wrongful conviction cases in which the defendants were ultimately exonerated after spending years or decades in prison. In many of those cases, he said, media coverage before and during the original trial didn’t critically examine the prosecution’s evidence or the conduct of the underlying investigation.

“I think that when a suspect is first arrested, the media often acts as sort of an arm of the prosecution,” Drizin said. “Too many reporters accept the police narrative as the gospel truth, and police officers often leak selective information to the media that paints the suspect in a bad light. Those early media impressions oftentimes color and taint the case and make it difficult for a defendant to receive a fair trial.”

Often when a suspect is charged with a crime, the suspect is in jail and can’t present their side of the story to reporters, Drizin said. And that means reporters often rely on charging documents, police and other sources that only provide information tending to show a defendant is guilty. By the time of trial, a suspect’s guilt is often cemented in public consciousness, especially in shocking, high-profile crimes such as the Angie Dodge murder.

Public defender John Thomas, Chris Tapp’s attorney, said in his experience pre-trial media coverage is sometimes helpful and informative, sometimes sensationalized and biased against the accused.

In the bad cases, Thomas said, “the reporter talks to two or three people on the scene. They’re not necessarily eyewitnesses or credible witnesses. Sometimes there’s a lot of sensationalism brought into it: ‘What will make this interesting?’ rather than, ‘What really happened?’”

In the worst cases, Thomas said he can see a jury thinking: “We know this guy is guilty. We’ve already seen the news coverage.”

Drizin said the media can play a positive role too.

“Once questions are raised about police conduct in a case, the media can become an important component of the search for truth,” Drizin said. “I think this happened in (Chris Tapp’s) case through the reporting of the Post Register and Dateline and other investigative reporting outlets. Very serious questions began to be raised about the conduct of the investigation and the guilt or innocence of Chris Tapp.”

But, Drizin added, that is no substitute for skeptical, thorough reporting as such cases are unfolding.

“I just wish the media worked a bit harder at the beginning of cases,” he said. “It’s very easy for the media to rely on police sources to write their stories. It’s much harder to do the kind of digging that is necessary to present a fuller context.”


Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.


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