Journées doctorales de la SFSIC location:Paris date:18-19 november 2005
The possible impact of media coverage on trial outcome in criminal cases has been widely studied. However, most researchers have tested the effects of reading non-published, constructed newspaper crime stories on guilt attribution or perception of a defendant’s character by mock juries. An often heard criticism is that these fabricated stories are formulated in a one-sided way and are too (negatively) coloured which makes them unrealistic and not lifelike. Therefore, our study focused on two real published newspaper articles of a Belgian homicide case and used them in an experimental set-up.
The first article is a fairly emotional story with no mention of the defendant’s positive traits, whereas the second news story is less emotional and presents a more balanced portrayal of the suspect. A third text used in the experiment was a copy of the first article but the lead and the headline were manipulated (five lines); finally, a fourth text on a totally different topic was read by a group of participants to form the control condition.
The results show significant differences between the experimental conditions. Participants who read the first story found the defendant more guilty, more threatening, more dangerous and less good in general than the readers of the second text. People who read the first text also showed less understanding of what had happened than the participants in the second group. Significant differences were also found between the readers of the first original published story and the manipulated version. Although only five sentences were changed, people in the third condition had a less negative idea about the defendant’s character.