Monday, July 18, 2011

Media frenzy encourages mob justice

Would anyone be surprised if some crazy gun-toting vigilante killed the most hated woman in America?

I am not predicting this, nor am I advocating it. In fact, I sincerely, fervently hope it doesn’t happen.

However, if mob justice does prevail, a good portion of the blame should rightfully fall upon the media, and especially the inflammatory rhetoric that has aired, and is still airing, on HLN. Especially noteworthy for its wallow in the gutter is the nightly program hosted by Nancy Grace. During the most hated woman’s (MHW) trial, HLN, and especially Grace’s program, devoted increasing time and energy to the proceedings, resulting in the 29-year-old network’s best ratings months ever in June. (Reuters, July 6, 2011)

Grace’s shrill, biased coverage of the trial and verdict have created an atmosphere conducive to vigilantism. For example, after hearing the verdict, the HLN evening host said, "somewhere out there, the devil is dancing tonight." Later, lightening struck a tree near the area where the MHW’s daughter’s body was found. Grace wondered aloud on her show if the lightening bolt was a message from an angry God.

Al Tompkins, a senior instructor at the Poynter Institute, a training center for journalists, said of Grace’s show, "It's just unforgivable the amount of vitriol that has come from her show that has now permeated the entire channel. There was no room for them for anything other than a guilty verdict…I'm not sure whether she considers herself to be a journalist," Tomkins added. "What she's practicing is not journalism. It has a lot to do with advocacy and maybe even a vendetta." (Reuters, July 6, 2011)

MHW’s release from prison and every move she’s made have been scrutinized, analyzed, and publicized by HLN and almost every other media outlet. This unending scrutiny, no doubt fed by the desire to maintain pumped-up ratings, has created a kind of manic atmosphere where anything, including vigilantism, is possible. For example, in mid-July, some Internet sites reported that a MHW look-alike was attached in Oklahoma. However, those erroneous reports were later debunked by KTUL-TV among others. It was just a false alarm—this time.

I haven’t seen a survey yet, but I wonder if most Americans would be happy if mob justice did prevail in this case. I hope I’m wrong. I hope we are better than that.

What the coverage of MHW’s case has made clear is the need to spread the word about peace and conflict sensitive journalism here in America.

As a peace journalism professor and trainer, one of the principles I teach journalists is that they need to always consider the consequences of their reporting. In a wartime or post-conflict setting, this means that reporters should understand that their words could inflame violence or impede reconciliation. In this situation, those in the media must consider the possibility that their reporting could lead to mob justice. I’m not suggesting that the trial and verdict shouldn’t have been reported, but I am saying that no thought has been given to the inflammatory nature of how the story was reported.

If the media had been practicing peace and conflict sensitive journalism, it would have balanced the coverage by not being so blatantly anti-defendant. and eschewed the kind of inflammatory, shill language that became the norm on Grace’s show and on many online sites.

It’s not too late to repair some of the damage. HLN and others should air voices that speak out strongly against vigilantism and emphatically in favor of respect for the rule of law.

Freedom of the press doesn’t mean freedom of responsibility from one’s actions as a member of the media.


  1. Steve, thank you, this is a good article.

    Massmedia these days is driven by profit and as you illustrate, it will go as far as to create that "kind of manic atmosphere" necessary to capture public attention and advertisement money. Bottom line, read more new, watch less news, and we definitely need more people like you Steve.

  2. Hate radio can destroy the whole world, Nancy Grace herself inclusive. She and the radio needs to desist from that lest they see destruction for which they won't go unpunished.

    Uganda- Gulu Peace journalist.

  3. I'm afraid that this kind of thinking about the mass media gives over too much power to individuals such as Nancy Grace and too little agency to her viewers, none of which by the way, has killed anyone. Blaming the media for violence is easy; it's much more difficult to analyze the relationship of media viewers to what they watch and to then figure out what they take, go beyond, ignore, reinterpret, or even leave behind from their viewing experience.