Editorial: Rushing to judge

Innocent until proven guilty.

That is the crux of the American judicial system, but sometimes reality is not reflective of this idealism. It’s easy to fall into the trap of quick judgment. When everyone thinks something is so, it’s not hard to follow that path. But rushing to judgment based on one-sided versions of events is never a good idea — in life or in the courtroom.

But judging someone’s guilt based on a police report has become en vogue, and the media, magnified by the far-reaching powers of the Internet, feeds those fears, sympathizing with the alleged “victim.”

Media reports have been responsible for ruining the lives of people who, for all intents and purposes, have done nothing worthy of the reputation cast upon them by quick-to-judge journalists with a penchant for drama and a yen for name recognition. Cases that play on sensitivities — or worse, combine them with the fashionable social or cultural movements of the moment — inevitably lead to strong opinions that lack logic or reason.

It’s not really the consumer’s fault. It’s those who publish sensational stories, highlighting the headline-grabbing details, focusing on the dramatic, the dangerous, the fantastic. Even if it’s based purely on speculation, some stories appear too good to be true — the David and Goliath story.

But what if Goliath was right? What if David was wrong, and yet he somehow fooled us all, using the easy-to-sell details that appeal to our inner desire to root for the underdog? What if both were wrong? What if both were right?

It doesn’t help that our nature wants us to see things in black and white. But in reality, the world is 80% gray, and that makes the job of our judicial system that much more difficult, and for all of us to withhold judgement.

One can see that in cases that are deeply charged with political and ideological passions, how difficult it must be for those who prosecute defendants to maintain objectivity. With the whole world watching, few tasks seem more difficult than dishing out justice under an intense media microscope. And for us journalists who care about fairness, removing ourselves from the hype that popular media generates can be equally as challenging.

The power of the press as a watchdog has been heralded since the dawn of the 20th Century for bringing down corruption and supporting the common good. Sometimes, however, the press forgets the power it has, flinging it haphazardly like a child with a lethal weapon.

The Internet has forced many press outfits to become sloppy with their reporting, focusing on speed over accuracy, quantity over quality, sensationalism over balance. For over a century the press has been a gatekeeper of information, and its challenge was to hold that responsibility in the highest regard, with unwavering integrity and commitment to seeking out the truth, regardless of its implications.

Now the press is challenged with something even more difficult — wading through the blogosphere and public opinion polls and pundits and talking heads to reach the uncompromised truth. Like an iceberg, what appears on the surface is only a tiny portion of verity. Beneath lies an ocean of details, but it takes some cold-water swimming to get to the bottom of it all.

When high-profile court cases fall apart, look first at how the media handled it from the beginning. From O.J. Simpson to Casey Anthony, everyone deserves their day in court, and the media should review all facts, and not just the convenient ones that align with popular cultural or political values.

The press, more than any other industry, would benefit from a long deep breath. Step back, inhale, look at what it has created. Exhale. The press should leave judgment for the judge and jury, and reserve guilt for all the court cases that were won or lost due to public opinion and not the facts.


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