The Narrative Beneath the Trial Coverage

Jodi Arias has been convicted of 1st degree murder, and America congratulates itself for knowing that she was guilty all along. But why does anyone not involved with the case care so much?

The easy answer is to blame it on the news media, which I do, but that is nothing either new or informative. The question is why the media wants us to care. It’s not merely to fill airtime; there are “sensational” events happening often enough that we should answer why this trial in particular attracted attention.

She’s a reasonably attractive defendant, which certainly didn’t make news agencies avoid the case. She also killed a man, which under our society’s still-patriarchal view of women as delicate servants brings a bit of attention in itself. Still, she didn’t sleep with a student or kill children, which are the usual ways young white women on trial come to national attention.

Her defense at trial was that she killed him in self-defense.

Ah. Aaaaaah! Here we get into something the media can use. Experts can talk every single day of the trial about whether a self-defense claim is ever valid and, more importantly, if killing an abuser is even self-defense.

The interest isn’t in what Jodi Arias did, or even why, but in whether women are allowed to defend themselves. Can abused women take advantage of opportunities to prevent further abuse?

And the real draw for the media here is that there was zero (reported) evidence to support Arias’ claims. Only her word and that of experts were available to verify her claims of abuse. So all of the theoretical arguments by the media’s talking heads kept circling back to the real narrative of the coverage — she’s lying about being abused.

Through her case, we can all reinforce the script that women lie. A woman claims to have been abused? Lying. Raped? Totally lying. One well-publicized instance of a woman you just knew all along was lying will now be the filter through which we judge all claims by women.

Do I think that the promotion of this case was a calculated decision to help erode public opinion about abuse? No. Rather, it was a calculated decision to give us a story that feeds into our sense of outrage — a sense that is still informed by outdated notions such as “women lie”, “reports of abuse are false”, and “I could tell by looking at her”.

Writing this the day after the verdict, the Jodi Arias case is already being buried. Now we’re being feverishly told about how three women held captive should have escaped years earlier and how the man who helped them finally is horrible and stupid.



Reporting Gone Wrong

Trigger Warning: This essay is about rape and rape culture.

When I planned this essay, it was inspired by an unfortunate phrase that I caught in a true crime show on ID. An officer described the rape and murder of a woman as a “rape gone wrong”. Clearly, he was just recycling the phrase “burglary gone wrong”, which is used to indicate that someone was unexpectedly home or awake. I don’t think the officer meant to imply that the presence of the rape victim was unexpected, but it’s that kind of casual language that supports rape culture. The implication is that there’s a right way for a rape to go, which is a damn creepy way of thinking.

That’s what I had planned to write about. Then the verdict came in from the Steubenville, OH rape trial, and news agencies fell over themselves to mourn the “promising futures” of the convicted rapists.

Personally, I believe the only their futures promised was more rape, but I’m a cynic.

The 24-hour news cycle promotes a lot of lazy reporting. Something needs to fill the time, so the latest big event is worked over until every last cliché has been wrung from it and those clichés have in turn been ground into nothingness.

Communities are ‘quiet’, ‘close’, and ‘peaceful’ up until they’re ‘shocked’ and ‘saddened’ by ‘sudden violence’. Everything in a trial is either ’emotional’ or ‘not betraying any emotion’. These are some of the building blocks reporters use when they have nothing to say.

In a rape trial, especially of a minor, the victim is protected, so all the press has to work with is the defendant. So, when pressed for material, they pull out the usual time-filling nonsense and wind up reporting on the wasted potential of rapists. There is no excuse for it; it’s sheer laziness.

It’s reporting gone wrong.