Now that George Zimmerman has been charged and his trial has begun, it is difficult to see how he will get a fair trial given the amount of media coverage there has been surrounding this case. This raises the important question: Is the amount of media involvement in the Trayvon Martin case actually becoming dangerous?Should there be a restriction on how much the media is allowed to report on certain crimes?
In Britain, there is an Act of Parliament called Contempt of Court (1981), which makes it a criminal offence to “frustrate the course of justice,” i.e. to interfere with a trial. This includes tampering with evidence, intimidating witnesses, trying to prejudice a verdict, publishing material not presented as evidence during the trial, and even taking a photograph of a court case or a court room.
How would contempt of court work in the U.S. and how would it have affected the media coverage of the Trayvon Martin case? Most crucial in this instance would be the fact that the media presented George Zimmerman as a person of bad character, something which may seriously prejudice or influence the verdict of a case.
In the weeks following the shooting, the media reported that Zimmerman went to court in 2005-2006 for three accusations which included domestic abuse. In any criminal trial in Britain, the media would not have been allowed to mention previous convictions (even if they were found innocent, and even if the offense was something as mundane as shoplifting). Similarly, the media would not be permitted to publish evidence such as George Zimmerman's 911 phone call, on the grounds that it could be tampered with by the press. Sure enough, that is exactly what occurred with NBC, and although it may have been an innocent mistake, the results for Zimmerman have been catastrophic.
Although Zimmerman had admitted to shooting in self-defence, the insinuations of “murder” and “racist” have been incredibly damaging and, at this rate, so widespread that it would be almost impossible for any member of the jury to believe that Zimmerman is truly innocent.
The main criticism of contempt of court laws is that these restrictions are outdated in the age of new media. It's clear that these laws would would have to be updated as the way we report news continues to change. Contempt of court assumes that no one goes on the internet to do research on their own and that jurors and judges are completely free from the influence of the media and public opinion.
The internet provides a diverse medium of information, and it would be unrealistic to impose a reporting restriction in its purest sense. Still, reporting the events of Trayvon Martin’s death has spiralled out of control.
It is only fair for Zimmerman to be subject to a fair trial and for all the facts to come out. While enforcing the same reporting restrictions as we have in the UK would be naive, there should be a restriction of some form to ensure that if justice is going to be delivered, it is done properly and is based on true and tangible facts and not by emotion.