Newspaper Reporting on Trial: A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Two Murder Cases

Claire Wardle, University of Pennsylvania

ABSTRACT
This study compared the newspaper coverage of the trials of two similar crimes in two different countries to examine similarities and differences in coverage. The U.S. coverage of the trial of Theodore Kaczynski (the Unabomber) and the British coverage of the trial of David Copeland (the Nailbomber), both of whom were found guilty for their crimes, were compared as to the underlying narrative structure, themes and motifs that characterized each. In a total of 133 articles from six broadsheet, middle-brow and tabloid newspapers, there was a prevailing use of narrative and stereotypical frameworks in the coverage in both countries. For example, Kaczynski was characterized as a hermit, while Copeland was labeled a Nazi. Yet the coverage differed in emphasis: the British coverage obsessed with the story of the crime whereas the U.S. press emphasized the story of the trial. Just over 50% of the U.S. articles (compared to 2% of the British coverage) focused on the trial, in particular the legal strategy of the defense and prosecution. In comparison, 40% of the British coverage (vs. 8% of the U.S. coverage) focused on the crimes themselves for the most part retelling the stories of the events and of the victims. In both cases, particularly in the U.S., this resulted in an almost total absence of a wider discussion of relevant criminal justice issues, particularly concerning the treatment of defendants with mental illnesses. These findings are supported by other scholarship that discusses how the critical questions of "how" and "why" are often ignored in contemporary reporting in favor of stories that rely too heavily on stereotypes and thematic narrative representations of the events. What makes these cases significant is that they were about an issue that is central in society, crime and how we deal with those who commit it. These results demonstrate the need for more responsible journalism, particularly in the reporting of trials, so that a public dialogue on criminal justice issues can be encouraged. While journalists continue to ignore the wider questions, they are simply perpetuating the ignorance that persists about mental illness, crime and punishment.

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Updated 05/20/2006