By Joseph Altman Jr.
Arizona Daily Wildcat
What is it that attracts people to television? Why do we need to know how many drops of blood were on O.J. Simpson's driveway in Brentwood? Why does the whole case either addict us to CNN or make us want to sell our TVs? And most importantly, why does the media industry feed us with it everyday? Although there's debate whether or not the coverage is necessary, one thing is for sure─ people are going to hear about the O.J. Simpson case for a very long time.
As lawyers in the Simpson case continue to file motions and prepare for jury selection, which begins Monday, television viewers around the world will begin to ask themselves these very questions between special reports, news analysis, and exclusive interviews.
Around noon every day, University of Arizona students flock to the lounges in the Student Union, occupying chairs, lying down on floors and leaning against walls in an effort to get a view of the television. Others decide to lunch at Louie's Lower Level, pausing between bites to look up at the big screen.
In any news story, there's a fine line between newsworthiness and overkill. The First Amendment guarantees the media freedom to make the public aware of stories such as these, but in many situations, too many members of the media, not just "Hard Copy," "Inside Edition" and the "Enquirer," but also CBS, CNN and NBC, may have taken things too far.
Jim Patten, UA journalism department head, said the first two or three days with the freeway chase and the filing of charges had appropriate coverage, but he criticized the way the media handled a lot of the legal proceedings.
"That was one of the most newsworthy events ever . an incredibly big story," Patten said. "But there is an argument after that. It has been clearly overdone; there's entirely too much information floating around."
According to Dave Hatfield, program director for KVOA-TV Channel 4, the station isn't providing extensive coverage of this week's pre-trial hearings.
"Early on, (the network) provided coverage. Now they're providing selected coverage and optional coverage. When it's optional, basically we decide not to put it on the air. There isn't much interest," Hatfield said.
Hatfield also said, coverage won't pick up when jury selection starts next week, because cameras are not being allowed in the courtroom during the process. And it could last several weeks. That sets the beginning of the trial to a date in late October or early November, Hatfield said. When that time comes and the cameras start broadcasting live, people will either want to rush to their television or catch up on their homework.
David Buller, associate communications professorat UA, explained that people enjoy watching the coverage for several reasons, one being the recent interest in what he calls "semi-real" shows like "Cops" and "Rescue 911".
Another reason why the case is getting so much attention, according to Buller, is the increased media attention on crime.
"[Would the Simpson story] have hit when crime wasn't a big story? I don't know," Buller said, pointing out the fact that the media has increased their coverage of crime, leading public opinion surveys to show crime is increasing dramatically. Federal statistics show, however, that crime has not increased as dramatically as people may think.
Michael Zackowski, an exercise and sport sciences freshman, did not enjoy watching all of the coverage, however, saying there was "a lot of stuff they didn't need to show."
"To go on and on doesn't benefit (anybody)," Hatfield agreed.
And while the special reports, which lasted all day long, disrupted regular programming, angering many soap fans, it only indirectly bothered Zackowski.
"It just got in the way of my sister's and girlfriend's soap operas ─ I always heard about it from them," Zackowski said.
Channel 4 has not decided if they will air full coverage of Simpson's trial. According to Hatfield, information from NBC has said, "We still continue to work on a coverage format for the trial."
According to Buller, the media is doing everything it can to use this to boost ratings. Stations will say, "Watch tonight for the latest on the O.J. Simpson case," when in actuality, nothing new developed in the case that day.
And just in the same way that the Persian Gulf conflict exposed a bumper crop of Persian Gulf experts, the Simpson case has made every prosecutor, district attorney, judge, public defender and lawyer across the country experts and as a result hot interviews.
With jury selection forthcoming, many viewers have also raised concerns of how extensive coverage contaminates the jury pool. Patten explained that aside from the media's functions of entertainment, political functions and covering government, they also present opinions. However, Patten says the media doesn't necessarily influence the way people think.
"Media is not as influential as they're popularly given credit for," he said. "(media) doesn't change many minds."
But media influence is definitely on the minds of all those involved in the case, as the difficulty in finding 12 objective jurors comes nearer.
"If there are 12 jurors that don't know about O.J. Simpson, I want to know what part of Mars they're living in," Patten said. "But I've read articles on Simpson and I can still be objective. The jurors need to be people who can sort things out."
Zackowski agreed. "The jury doesn't have to not know about the case, they just have to have an open mind," he said.
The O.J. Simpson case isn't the only example of occasions when the media has done something very popular that might be judged as sensationalism. There have been many situations where the media rushes to break a story without making sure it isn't doing more harm than good. What to do about these situations is another question.
According to Patten, "About five or six years ago police arrested a man ─ they called him the 'something, something' rapist, Tucson always names it's rapists. One of the T.V. stations said, 'Tucson can rest easy tonight, the rapist has been captured,' but it turned out it wasn't him."
Recently in Phoenix, a man allegedly entered a department store with a gun and was unaware that police were waiting outside, making plans to enter the store without harming civilians. A local T.V. station broadcast a special report live from the scene, jeopardizing the operation because the man may have been watching the story on a television in the store.
The reporter even realized the consequences of broadcasting the story, saying at the end of his report that the suspect was unaware of the police stake-out─ unless he was watching a T.V. inside. Smart, eh?
The media gives us all this information, however, because people want it. Where there's a demand, there will be a supply, and what Patten calls "peripheral media" has definitely found its niche in the market.
On Monday, "Hard Copy" explained their "trail of evidence" against Simpson, recreating blood stains in a Ford Bronco similar to the one in front of Simpson's house on the night of the murders. But then, a few moments later, the show introduced its REAL stories of the day, "Oprah... Unauthorized" and "Look out! We've got the pictures of Stallone's new love... and wait 'till you see how old this one is!" We're talking serious news priorities here.
It's interesting to look at all of the "evidence" the tabloid T.V. shows have and wonder why the networks haven't found out the same things. "Hard Copy" and "Inside Edition" seem to have the whole case figured out ─ so why doesn't everyone else?
Patten says that while networks like CNN and CBS have gone beyond necessary coverage, "Hard Copy" has gone beyond that. "They're starting to be more alike, but they're not together yet ─ there's still a difference between CBS and 'Hard Copy'," he said.
But Zackowski said, "I don't even pay attention to 'Hard Copy'. Those are kind of cheap shows."
Patten says, though, that even with the possibility of situations like this and the possible difficulty of finding 12 objective jurors, regulating the media is not the answer.
"Authorities can not operate in secret, but sharing every detail in a trial can be hazardous potentially," Patten said.
"In a lot of states, or lots of times, agreements are made with the press and the bar. Free press trial guidelines are not a bad plan," Patten continued, saying that is better than the system in effect in England. There, the media is not permitted to broadcast or publish facts in the trial other than the charges filed.
Buller said there are definitely concerns that extensive coverage may affect the justice process, but he was clear to point out that the first amendment says there can be no restrictions oncoverage. "Coverage in-depth is a judgement call," Buller said, "It becomes a moral question."
So the big question is, when is the madness going to stop?
Hatfield explained it doesn't always depend on newsworthiness; programming obligations are also a factor. While Hatfield said "there isn't much interest" in the trial at this point, he also said the new fall shows have played a role in the coverage decision.
"We want to let the shows get a shot. Pre-empting with O.J. kind of hurts that," Hatfield said.
Regardless of the thinking of television executives, there will no doubt be some form of Simpson trial coverage. How much we see, however, is yet to be determined.
Whether people like it or not, the Simpson proceedings will continue to be in the news. And the controversy over how the media conducted itself in regard to the case will continue to be discussed long after the trial is over. But as long as the press is protected by the First Amendment, the only people who can stop the media from covering the story are the viewers themselves ─ by changing the channel.
Joe Altman is a possible journalism major. He hopes that more celebrities will become the subject of national media attention so there will be a large demand for journalists four years from now.
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