When it comes to the media coverage of a legal trial, the First Amendment and the Sixth Amendment often clash. While some will argue that the press has the right to publish whatever they want whenever they want, others believe this infringes on the rights of the defendant.
This issue was first brought about in the court case Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart. In this case, a debate sparked about whether the press may be prevented from releasing any information that may be deemed “implicative of guilt” in relation to the defendant. In the end, the court decided that allowing the media to report the events around the trial would not interfere with the defendant’s right to a fair trial. However, that has not stopped the debate.
It is easy to understand both sides of the argument, which is why this is still a heavily debated subject. On one hand, the press releasing certain information does lead to the possibility of a biased jury. The media has the ability to twist information to look a certain way, which can incriminate someone before they’re proven guilty. On the other hand, if the news is just stating facts that will be brought up in trial then it would cause no harm.
An easy option to appease both sides would seem to be not to prohibit the press from releasing information, but postponing it. The media should be allowed to attend trials since they act as a surrogate for the public, and they should be allowed to publish the results of the trial, but I don’t believe they should be able to post any information about a defendant before a trial has begun.
On the topic of the press being a surrogate for the public, as Emily Bell and Taylor Owen point out in their book, the press also helps function as a watchdog of democracy. As the watchdogs of society, they should be allowed legal protections for confidential communications between themselves (the reporters) and their sources.
This is another place where the press has been pressured in certain cases in court to break the confidentiality between themselves and their sources. Although this may not seem incredibly important to maintain, you’d be surprised just how much you wouldn’t know without this protection. Just think about all the whistleblowers we’ve had in our history (and currently) that expose the wrongdoings occurring right under our noses without us even knowing.
Trust between an interviewer and an interviewee is key with getting this vital information out to the public. If a source does not feel confident that what they say won’t come back for them in the future, then there’s is no way they’re going to be willing to talk. Obviously if a source indicates the possibility of a real crime that they or someone they know is going to commit, then yes this trust should be broken for safety reasons, but overall there needs to be legal protections so we as a society are not left in the dark.