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Does The Presumption of Innocence Apply To The Media? Dan Abrams Does Not Think So

Abramsrus Dan Abrams, the Chief Legal Correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC, recently called the long held presumption of innocence "hogwash."  You know the presumption of innocence, the idea that someone is innocent until proven guilty.  It comes out of something we Americans like to call the Constitution.

Then again, some of our former Presidents haven't read the Constitution.  Why would we expect a newsman to have read it?

To be fair, Dan didn't say the entire presumption of innocence was hogwash.  Just the idea that the media has to abide by the presumption of innocence is hogwash.

He writes:

Unless I am sitting in the jury box armed with that power I, and any other nonjuror for that matter, have no obligation, moral or legal, to embrace that legal fiction....As a citizen — or even a TV legal analyst — am I required to presume innocence, i.e., that the authorities arrest the wrong person in every case? Not a chance. Imagine how this might play out on television....Demanding that all of us presume every defendant innocent outside of a courtroom is to demand that we stop evaluating facts, thereby suffocating independent thought and opinion. There is nothing “reasonable” about that.

I know that I'm very careful about what I say here when I talk about pending cases, but what do you think?  Do you assume Chris Brown is guilty, or do you presume his innocence?  What about the people who haven't even been charged yet in shooting Mark Ruffalo's brother?  Or does it matter if the person has been arrested but not gone to trial yet, like Caylee Anthony's mom?  And does it even matter what the media says because we have really made up our minds anyway?  Does the media have some obligation in presenting the facts and not just spouting theories, a la Nancy Grace?

The Wall Street Journal law blog asked: Is there a threat that by removing all insistence of a presumption of innocence outside the courtroom we’ll effectively degrade what it means inside the courtroom?








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Comments

Angela

Whoa, heavy topic for this early in the morning.

I guess that's what's meant by the "court of public opinion."

I mean, yeah, I personally might figure someone's innocence or guilt just based on a news story, or whatever, but that's only my PERSONAL opinion. I think if I was in the position to be REPORTING facts to the public, then I'd better be careful of how I present those facts. Because guess what, if it's your job to report facts, then that's what you're supposed to do. Not spout your personal opinions, agendas or theories.

News has gone so far downhill that it's really difficult to tell what's fact, spin, opinion, etc. these days.

Anonymous New York

I think so, yes. For a few reasons. First, not everyone understands the legal presumption of innocence before proven guilty and it is a cornerstone of our justice system. It is important that this presumption be maintained and preserved not only in the courts but also in the media.

Second, the theory behind the media is supposed to be that the average person does not have the time or resources to gather all of the information to make informed decisions for him/her self. So we have to rely on the media to RESPONSIBLY to gather the information in an UNBIASED fashion for us. In the context of crimial justice, then, the media would have to use the same standard as our courts (presumption of innocence) for us to make informed decions.

Third, and perhaps the most important, for the justice system to function, we need to be able to select jurors who have not been unduly biased by the media. With the prevalence of social media in so many forms (tv, radio, internet, newspaper) it is becoming nearly impossible to find jurors who do not know something about high profile cases. If the media were able to OUTRIGHT presume guilt or innocence, this would further distort the truth and corrupt the jury pool. It would make it harder for cops, the prosecution and the defense attorneys to do their jobs. It may lead to further dissatisfaction with the legal system.

And this caped crusader just does not have enough hours in the night... shit. I just blew my cover.

Accidental Housewife

I suppose I "presume" NOT to know... how could any of us, without all of the facts and info... and let's face it, we are NEVER provided all the facts and info by the media. I understand that lawyers and journalists alike can and do make whole cases out of the way the law is worded, but, in this instance I think any reasonable person could understand that by asking you to "presume innocence" the law is actually asking not to make a judgment either way until the facts are read.
I think we'd all be MUCH more likely to "stop evaluating facts, thereby suffocating independent thought and opinion" if we assumed that the outcome was a forgone conclusion. You're much less likely to keep an open mind if you "presume" to know someone's a murderer. Because, really, he's guilty, right? So who cares what his defense is?

Accidental Housewife

Also, the people in those courtrooms? Though they may be chosen, hopefully, not to be biased, are still being surrounded by, brought up by, influenced by the media. So, if the media isn't required to uphold that standard, how can we expect any of the people in those courtrooms to? How can we expect people to be able to just turn it on or off, based solely on whether they're in a jurors box or not? Man, I hope Abrams there gets assigned to jury duty.

amy O.

This really makes me angry. People like this are why conservatives yap about "the liberal media bias." Unfortunately, they may be right about Dan Brown. Reporters are supposed to report FACTS. The facts are what they are. Bias should never be a part of good reporting, for one simple reason. What if the reporter's underlying assumption is wrong? People theoretically rely on the media to report the truth. Biased reporting seems like a pretty big stumbling block to getting the real truth, in my opinion.

A private citizen may not have a duty to uphold the presumption of innocence, but a reporter doing his job sure as hell does. Dan Brown talks about "suffocating independent thought and opinion." I'd suggest that not providing the public with the full, unbiased facts is the biggest step you can take to suffocate independent thought and opinion. How can people have informed opinions if they aren't truly informed?

amy O.

and I just realized I referred to the guy the whole way through my comment as Dan Brown. Speaking of uninformed. Wow, major brain blip there. Dan ABRAMS, we are talking about.

michele

Amy O. --there is certainly conservative media bias as well. it seems like all the media has a bias at times. which is quite unfortunate. didn't it used to be "just the facts, man." if a reporter goes and finds facts and then draws conclusions based on those facts, that is one thing. i do feel that other comments above are correct--we don't know anymore if something reported is fact or opinion. the waters are so murky.
media does seem to be tainting our justice system. i am not sure what we can do about that since we are all hard pressed to find a place in this world without media intrusion. i can't even go eat nachos as lunch without seeing CNN!

I do think we should presume people's innocence until proven guilty. Many lives and careers are shattered because of false accusations, even without media involvement.

I am not going to say that I am not guilty of thinking the worst at times of crimes in the media.

ms martyr

The news is only as reliable as its sources. I know for a fact that they are not always privy to "the rest of the story" (RIP Paul Harvey). Thus, what you hear or read may be just a fraction of the truth or a complete misdirection. We of the instant gratification mindset must have a judicial system that presents the jurors with the facts. Judge's ability to withhold what might be prejudicial information drives me crazy, but that's another rant.

Holmes

"...Demanding that all of us presume every defendant innocent outside of a courtroom is to demand that we stop evaluating facts, thereby suffocating independent thought and opinion."

How does presuming innocence in any way stifle someone from evaluating facts and employing critical thought? The point is that the media and we as the consumers of information from the media most likely do not yet HAVE all the facts, and therefore any evaluation of them, no matter how compelling they may be, is suspect. Part of the point of the legal process is to bring all of the relevant facts to light, examine them, and then and only then make a judgment regarding guilt or innocence. Perhaps there is more to his statement that provides additional context, but he seems to be excusing lazy jump-to-conclusions reporting.




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