TRIAL BY MEDIA: What Happens When Journalism Is Put On Trial?

During my time as a journalism student, I had to learn all about the complicated world of reporting. My university taught us the ethics of reporting, the history of American journalism, the basics of journalism law, and the basic grammar and terminology of writing news. One of the things I always found most interesting was the balancing act of reporting. My professors always talked about the importance of reporting the story without influencing it. They would say that we need to tell the story without being the story. We need to objectively report the facts without providing any sort of opinion that could influence the story or the audience’s perception of it. My interest in this balancing act is what brought my attention to the show TRIAL BY MEDIA (Netflix 2020).

This is a show about journalism. It’s a documentary series on Netflix that examines how the media can influence the outcome of trials. Each of the six episodes focuses on a different trial, each one involving extreme levels of media coverage. Oftentimes, this coverage would influence public opinion of what was going on inside the courtroom. The main concern was that public opinion would influence the decision of the jurors. My overall impression of the series is that it’s a pretty solid show but has its highs and lows.

The format of having each trial receive its own episode is an advantage. Each trial is going to have its own unique set of circumstances and allowing them to have their own hour-long slot to be examined allows the audience to take a deep dive into each one. It gives each story room to stretch its legs and really show what happened. It allows viewers to really examine all the details and come to a conclusion.

The downside of spreading it out like this is that the episodes vary in quality. Each one is helmed by a different director, and it really shows. There’s not one uniform style that extends throughout the entire series. Each filmmaker puts their own spin on their respective episode, resulting in some that are incredibly strong and others that are just “meh.” I would say that none of the episodes are necessarily bad. Some of them just aren’t anything to write home about. I would argue that the series could be a whole lot stronger if it picked one of the more compelling trials to be the main focus, and just used the others as tid-bits of information to back up the show’s message. The show could have been much stronger if it had more unifying themes that brought each episode together instead of six seemingly unconnected stories. 

For the most part, the show had my undivided attention. Despite some of its downfalls, I was always really interested in each case. It was super intriguing to see how each trial played out, and to see the different ways the media impacted the events in the courtroom. As a journalism major, the show brought me right back to the classrooms where I first learned about this topic. The only problem, I would say, is that there were a handful of moments where it did seem to drag a bit. After all, there’s only so many times a show can say, “This thing is bad.” It needs to have a bit of variation so that it can expand on its message. Despite this, I still felt engaged with the show. This never seemed to be a big enough problem to really tear me away from what I was watching.

The symbolism of the show was one of its strongest points, and this was often at its best when the show found creative ways to use archival footage. Every episode uses plenty of archival footage to tell the story of what happened, most of it being from the TV news channels that reported on each trial. Sometimes, the series would show a television inside a living room with the news coverage playing. It was an excellent way of putting the audience into the shoes of the people who watched the coverage as it was happening. But perhaps the strongest piece of symbolism comes from the first episode. It shows a recreation of the area of a courtroom where the jury sits, but in place of one of the normal wooden chairs, there’s a big, red recliner. It really puts emphasis on the message that is mentioned several times. The media coverage brought each trial into people’s homes. What viewers saw at home was exactly what the jury saw. This made audiences feel as though they were in the courtroom, and that they were experts on what was going on. This was perhaps the strongest argument the show had to make, and the sight of a recliner in a courtroom perfectly summed it up.

TRIAL BY MEDIA  is a solid show that will definitely keep your attention. It serves as a great starting point for a conversation about allowing the media into courtrooms. Each episode tells an interesting story that sends a great message. Even those who don’t have a background in journalism will find the show engrossing and be dying for more. It just needs a handful of small changes to elevate it from good to great. It has tremendous potential, and it sends a fantastic message. It just needs a little nudge towards greatness. Despite its setback, it’s still a tremendous show that’s worth a watch. 

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