Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.
E-mail to a friend | Printer-friendly version | Discuss story

Guest commentary

A great week for sensation, but not for fair trials

Patrick Mattimore

The media hit a trifecta the week before last. Three gruesome murder stories dominated the headlines. They made for sensational reading, but perhaps not for fair trials.

In rapid succession, we learned of: (a) A celebrity wife slaying and high school student, Scott Dyleski, turned Goth druggie suspect; (b) Scott McAlpin, jilted boyfriend and frequent domestic violence probationer, found with the body of his former girlfriend in the trunk of his car and;(c) Lashaun Harris, the Oakland mom accused of throwing her kids to their deaths into San Francisco Bay.

Any one of the homicides would have been sufficient to throw local journalists into paroxysms of ecstasy for weeks. For the national media, the stock of juicy killings may keep the Bay Area in focus for several more days.

Trouble is that the media seem to be unaware of the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees an accused the right to a "public trial, by an impartial jury" rather than a trial by media in public.

Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote the Supreme Court opinion in a 1976 case which struck a balance between the rights of the accused to a fair trial and the First Amendment rights of the news media.

Mr. Burger wrote that our nation's founders "recognized that there were risks to an individual's rights from an unfettered press." Citing an earlier case he wrote: "The trial courts must take strong measures to ensure that the balance is never weighed against the accused."

Today the media charges in before the balancing scales are even brought out.

Although newspapers generally withhold the names of juvenile suspects, the San Francisco Chronicle printed both Dyleski's name and several pictures of the boy, justifying that decision by claiming that the newspaper expected Dyleski to be charged as an adult.

The public has a right to expect that courts will operate in an impartial atmosphere relatively free from citizens' passions fired by a sensation-hungry media.

What's more, Dyleski's most recent picture from high school, placed alongside a photo from middle school, clearly conveyed the impression of a lost adolescent. Whether intended or careless, it spoke a thousand condemnatory words in silence.

In recent years, pretrial attention for high-profile cases has mushroomed.

The problem is that all the media attention virtually ensures that at least some of the eventual jurors will not be impartial, despite the trial judge's repeated admonitions to ignore information outside the courtroom. As the famous dictum goes, you cannot un-ring a bell.

Inevitably and unfairly, a great deal of the information jurors learn about outside the courtroom will be false, or at the very least, it will be evidence that the judge deems inadmissible at trial.

Professor Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, has studied memory for 30 years. Her research on false memories and how suggestive influences can be implanted, have led her to conclude that "misinformation can change an individual's recollection in predictable, and sometimes very powerful, ways," as she told the American Psychological Association at its 2003 convention.

Prof. Loftus' ability to successfully implant false memories in research subjects suggests that our malleable memories may be incapable of distinguishing courtroom evidence from media reports. In Dr. Loftus' work, significant minorities of participants have been led to believe that they were hospitalized overnight, had an accident at a family wedding, or that they had nearly drowned and been rescued by a lifeguard.

We are all subject to an inability to remember where information comes from. Unable to remember the source of information, we make assumptions that comport with our general behaviors. So, for example, if we can't remember specifically whether we first learned about the Harris child murders from a friend, over the Internet, on our radio, via television, or in the newspapers, we will likely make assumptions based upon how we usually get our news. For criminal defendants, those kinds of assumptions can literally result in death sentences.

It is unwise to gag media when it comes to police reporting. I am certainly not advocating that we return to the days of the secret trial Star Chamber. However, we need to strike a balance so that our system doesn't dissolve into a media-propelled public witch hunt either. The public has a right to expect that courts will operate in an impartial atmosphere relatively free from citizens' passions fired by a sensation-hungry media.

Patrick Mattimore is a San Francisco attorney.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.


A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle


San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)


Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

Site highlights


The three-part series follows the rise of three Bay Area handouts:
• Part 1: At free dailies, advertisers sometimes call the shots
• Part 2: Free daily papers: more local but often superficial
• Part 3: Free papers' growth threatens traditional news
• See also: SF Examiner and Independent agree to end payola restaurant reviews
• And: The free tabloid that wasn't: East Bay's aborted Daily Flash


Lou Alexander started a firestorm with his original guest commentary predicting the company would be sold. Several other experts on newspapers have weighed in:
Newspapers can't cut their way back into Wall Street investors' hearts, by Stephen R. Lacy; Alexander responds
Humbler profits won't encourage buyouts, by John Morton; Alexander responds
Newspapers can't maintain monopoly profits because they've lost their monopolies, by Philip Meyer
Knight Ridder in grave jeopardy, by Lou Alexander...


Leakers and plumbers: There's no difference between a good leak and a bad leak? Journalists need a shield law. 11/22/05
Unintended consequences: How Craigslist and similar services are sucking revenue from faltering newspapers. 9/13/05
Is CPB irrelevant? As Congress moves to cut public broadcasting funds, has CPB become obsolete in the modern marketplace. 6/26/05
The paradox of news: There's more news available and its cheaper than ever before, but fewer young people are interested. 5/12/05


Most recent updatesHow the Bay Area's most popular media stack up.Talk about Bay Area journalism in our on-line discussion forum. A printable news scorecard you can use at home or in school. Raves and rants aimed at the local media. What would you do if you were the editor? Upcoming happenings and calls for public action. Let 'em know! Contact a local newsroom.Codes of ethics, local media advocates and journalism tools. Tip us off about the local media, or tell us how we're doing.Oops.A comprehensive list of past GTN exclusives.