Barnett's study in
JMC Monographs


School of Communications faculty member Brooke Barnett had her article "Guilty and Threatening: Visual Bias in Television News Crime Stories" published in the most recent issue of Journalism and Mass Communication Monographs.

In addition, she wrote an op-ed reflection on her study for the Greensboro News & Record. The column, "TV Images Create Unconsious Bias," ran in the Ideas section of the Dec. 14 edition of the News & Record.

She leads off the op-ed writing:

"The American media treat the public to a seemingly endless procession of images of defendants being led into court dressed in orange jumpsuits, handcuffed and escorted by police. Such images are a staple of TV news. They are also a significant and widely ignored contributor to jury bias and may undermine the constitutional right to a fair trial."

Barnett explains her study of such visuals in the op-ed piece. Her finding is that when criminal defendants are shown on television cuffed and in prison garb, viewers do perceive them to be more dangerous than defendants in a similar setting who are shown unrestrained and wearing street clothes. She adds that this impact was shown in her study to be even more prejudicial than a viewer's knowledge of a suspect's prior criminal record.

"When study participants were asked two weeks later what they recalled about such a defendant, most recalled thinking he was guilty, even when they couldn't remember anything else about the defendant or crime," Barnett writes. "This study shows that the TV image plays a key role, and jurors might not realize their determination was biased."

She points out that members of the media, judges and lawyers are not always factoring in visual bias when considering the rights of the accused. She suggests street clothes should be the standard uniform instead of prison garb when a defendant is being moved from place to place. She adds that the administrators of the U.S. legal system could offer defendants the choice to be photographed by members of the media in street clothes in a non-descript room, rather than in flashy orange on what has come to be known as a "perp walk," a shorthand phrase for the exposure of a suspected perpetrator of a crime in an embarassing public display.

"The law treats a brief look at the accused wearing prison clothes and being restrained in the courtroom as harmless error and not as reason for a mistrial," she concludes. "This study suggests that the courts will have to consider the impact of this action on the defendant more carefully ... Journalists should rethink showing the standard jail transport, where the accused is shown in institutional clothes and restraints. Ultimately, this may require not using post-arrest images at all.

"These are not easy issues, but the evidence is too strong, the risk of bias too great, and the threat to constitutionally protected rights too real for either legal professionals or journalists to ignore them."




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Last Modified:  12/15/03
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