True Crime, Why Journalists Must Remain Neutral, and What It Means

“As a journalist we have to give up the right to have a public opinion about things…it’s not my job to judge…”

This was Zora Stephenson’s take on her exclusive interview with Chris Watts, the Colorado man who confessed to murdering his pregnant wife and two young daughters earlier this month.

Obviously Watts was addressing a phalanx of reporters simultaneously when he gave that infamous interview, not Stephenson directly, but regardless, getting Watts to talk when he did, and how he did, and for as long as he did, was a major scoop. Probably the recording will be fielded in a criminal trial as evidence.

Because the interview went viral, many wanted to know what the reporter’s thoughts were, standing there, getting a direct, firsthand impression of Watts. The public were disappointed to hear Stephenson wouldn’t give them her personal opinion because she couldn’t.

It wasn’t that she didn’t have an opinion. As soon as you sign up as a journalist, your opinion becomes a public opinion, and represents whichever media employs you. In a journalist’s contract, everything you say and write is owned – through copyright – by your employer. As such, they can also be sued if you express an opinion, especially one that’s subjectively accurate or even true, but not legally defensible.

For this reason it’s drilled into journos heads that they may not have an opinion. That the highest journalistic ethic is to remain neutral, kinda like Lady Justice herself.

Many in the public admire this, and think it’s admirable. It’s not. Being able to think for oneself, and think independently, is a sign of intelligence. Being able to speculate, especially in important matters that rock society like crime, is a sign of a healthy, self-aware community. Being restricted from expressing an opinion when you have firsthand knowledge is a kind of common commercial censure.

Many in the public take the lead from journalists, thinking it’s immoral and unChristian “to judge”. Only God and a court Judge can do that.

Okay, well, when you get married, who decides whether your partner is right for you, and trustworthy, and vice versa? Do you want to go to court and have a Judge decide? Well, many marriages do end there, in divorce court with a Judge telling each side how to split the marriage pile. In the real world, we do have to think for ourselves, we do have to reason, we do have to have an opinion about the quality of virtually everything, from the vegetables we buy to the air that we breathe. Those who give up this right become sheep, and sheep are led like lambs to the slaughter.

If true crime teaches us anything, it’s not to be a sheep. It’s to think.

So how do journalists and media companies get around the pitfalls of not being able to comment on true crime, even when they’re right there, covering it? Well, that’s why they’re always interviewing experts.

Just as experts are brought into court rooms to provide their “objective” assessments of a set of facts [even though these are often competing opinions with some supporting evidence], the media are allowed to “objectively” comment on interviews such as the one Watts gave, through experts. I often find these “expert” commentaries quite comical. It’s not as though these experts dedicate themselves to one case when the media asks for comment; they’re by their very nature true crime butterflies, jumping from flower to flower, and trying to get to as many as they can. In this sense the experts are like the journalists, jumping around from case to case, story to story, but not really sticking around to absorb one case for any length of time to really extract the marrow out of it.

That does happen when an expert becomes part of a defense team, someone like Dr. Henri Lee the forensic scientist, or a DNA specialist like Barry Scheck. But experts that are not part of a defense team that appear on air amount to little more than a circus act, expressing an opinion while holding up a CV and calling it truth.

After the Watts interview the media were desperate to do something with it, but because of legal perils and pitfalls, they had to have experts weigh in. And so they wheeled in their circus acts – the expert body language consultant, the ex-FBI profiler [who looks like someone’s granny], the professional lie detector etc.

It gets absurd when these experts are leaders in the field of pseudosciences – stuff like handwriting analysis, body language, lie detection, and the rest of it. Although there are groups who make a study of these areas, it’s hardly scientific. Although there are professional bodies that accredit one another, they’re hardly authoritative outside of these groups and clubs.

That’s not to say there isn’t merit in examining handwriting, or human behaviour, or that there aren’t patterns, or that plenty can’t be revealed, it’s just that one “expert” can easily be debunked by another “expert” interpreting exactly the same information in a different way.

A good example of Expert Wars in a court room is the handwriting analysis done in the Ramsey Ransom Note. 78 samples were taken, but only Patsy Ramsey’s handwriting was singled out as a possible match. Team Ramsey’s experts scored Patsy as a 4.5/5 for being the author of the note where 1 is certain and 5 is uncertain. Whever Patsy was interviewed she’d recite these numbers over and over again, like gospel. The prosecution handwriting experts – about half a dozen of them – either called her handwriting a 100% match for the Ransom Note, or extremely certain.

Which set of experts were right?

During the Wolf case, when the handwriting narrative was discussed as evidence, Lin Wood, the Ramsey’s defense lawyer managed to have all the prosecution’s handwriting analysts thrown out of court. He was able to demonstrate they didn’t belong to a particular professional body, and thus weren’t experts according to a particular standard.

With them gone, he could then field his own experts, and so it was no surprise when Judge Carnes accepted his version, that Patsy Ramsey wasn’t the author of the Ramsey Ransom Note.

Many of the experts courted by the media to prognosticate on court cases tend to be guns for hire either by prosecution teams, or by defense teams. It’s usually one side or the other. So a coroner or a polygrapher or a handwriting specialist or an ex-FBI profiler may make themselves available – at a fee – to testify in court, usually in support of a prosecution narrative, or to bolster a defense case.

They’re only too happy to talk to the media, it’s good for business, and so when they do, it’s all under the guise of “being objective”. But is it?

You’re only going to get a truly objective view of a true crime case from someone with no horse in the race. That’s not going to be an expert, and typically, it’s not going to be a journalist. There are a few journalists out there that have gone freelance, and cut themselves loose of their contracts [like me], who are allowed to do independent research and speculate, as long as they do so without defaming, or making absolute statements of guilt.

Media personalities who express their opinion well can become very wealthy and powerful, especially when they take their curated followings with them. Think about Oprah, Dr. Phil and Nancy Grace.

Nancy Grace is a special case. She’s empowered to comment and speculate because she’s an expert journalist in her own right; she’s a journalist with a law degree, and some experience in the Atlanta, Georgia courtroom as a prosecutor for the DA’s office. She’s smart enough to know how to speculate, or express an opinion in public that may be controversial or even inflammatory, but also legally sound. Many lawyers who field high-profile cases quit lawyering and become media pundits, like Marcia Clark. Legal commentary is a more fun gig, and if they’re compelling and charming in their coverage for the big networks, it pays well too.

Journalists who write books about criminals are also still beholden to their employers to toe the line, and be very careful about what they say or speculate on. A team of media lawyers will go through their narrative and make sure it reads like reporting, so that it’s just a recounting of dry facts and isn’t too subjective.

Lawyers sometimes write books too, but lawyers aren’t the best journalists, and constructing legal narratives doesn’t always translate to compelling prose on the page. That said, some do spectacularly well, especially when they hire ghost writers. Juan Martinez’ book on Jodi Arias for example is a major bestselling blockbuster, with well over 1000 reviews. It’s compelling stuff because of the prosecutor’s intimate knowledge of the case, and his many firsthand impressions and experiences with that particular murderess. This gives the reader a real sense of voyeurism, of being right there.

The bottomline when it comes to true crime is that you’re unlikely to get the authentic narrative from the media, just as you’re unlikely to get the actual story in court. What you will from the court and the media echo that follows, is opposing versions jostling for a legal stamp of approval. One version is the PR Apologia favouring an accused [where the family share their feelings of sympathy etc], the other version involves the sanitized neutral reporting on the objective facts [this person died at that time on Avenue X].

What the public really wants to know is why. They want motive. The media often tease their audience that they’re going to go there and expose these deepest of deep insights, they’re going to reveal all, that the accused is going to say why…and when you watch the documentaries, it’s actually about the accused denying they committed a crime. The media don’t talk about motive because they can’t. Even if they did, the accused wouldn’t want to be associated with a production than condemns them. So invariably, any media reporting that involves a criminal tends to be sympathetic to his case, otherwise he wouldn’t participate.

The media like to pretend to be biased, but they never are, and usually they’re biased towards the very criminals the public are outraged about. They have to be, because how the law works, if you say someone is innocent in public and they’re guilty, or possibly guilty, that’s okay, but if you say they’re guilty and you can’t prove it, then you’re guilty. In this way the media narrative always favours the defense narrative.

The public want to know what really happened, the thought processes that were involved, the whole dynamic. They want to see what is hidden. They want to speculate on the possibilities. Who is going to tell that story, because this is the hallowed ground of true crime?

It’s only the one with no horse in the race that’s going to deliver on that story.

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