Page last updated at 12:03 GMT, Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Do media reports influence juries?

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

The Scales of Justice at the Old Bailey

The most extensive and authoritative study to date of juries in England and Wales has concluded they are fair, efficient and effective.

But the unique look at the duties performed by ordinary men and women in the criminal justice system also revealed crucial insights into the role of the media.

Special laws play an important role in protecting a jury from being influenced or prejudiced by media reporting, but every now and then criminal cases hear claims that a defendant cannot get a fair trial because of the media.

These concerns are taken extremely seriously by judges and also by reporters and editors who can face imprisonment for compromising the legal process.

But at the same time there has been a growing view among many lawyers and journalists, largely based on instinct, that most juries are sophisticated enough to put media reports to one side when they are asked to return a verdict.

That's the theory - but until now there's been no evidence one way or another.

The 'fade factor'

The study by Professor Cheryl Thomas, from University College London, looked at what is known as the "fade factor" - the theory that media reports are less likely to affect jurors the further away in time they are when a case is actually heard.

The team looked at 62 cases involving 668 jurors at the busy Crown Courts in Nottingham, Winchester, in Hampshire, and Blackfriars in central London.

The report found that most jurors recalled media reports about their case while it had been going on, but nothing from before they had been called to jury service.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, jurors on high-profile cases were seven times more likely to recall media coverage than jurors who served on standard cases.

But overall, the findings represent the first evidence in the UK that the "fade factor" does play a role in insulating a jury from potentially prejudicial coverage.

Critically, the study found that a large proportion of jurors in both high profile and more banal cases could not recall whether or not the media reports before a trial had suggested whether the defendant was innocent or guilty.

However, as the graph below shows, very few of those who did recall the tone of the coverage thought it had implied the defendant was innocent.

The media emphasis recalled by a jury - the results were inconclusive

That's perhaps to be expected as coverage at the time of an arrest in a major investigation is inevitably going to focus on the police operation because defendants rarely speak before a trial - even if they are on bail rather than on remand.

But where this becomes interesting is in the memory and impressions of jurors working on the most high-profile cases.

A fifth of jurors in these cases who said they remembered the original reports, admitted they had found it difficult to put them out of their mind. Of these, about half said they had recalled the reports implied guilt.

What the research doesn't say is which types of reports the jurors remembered - and whether these memories influenced their verdict.

The internet

At the start of any trial, the jury is told not to look in the media for information about the case.

But the rise of internet news sites and other online news sources has raised concerns among the judiciary about how to best police this order.

The Ministry of Justice study asked jurors whether they were prepared to admit to having looked for information on the case that they had been hearing.

More jurors admitted to having seen information on the internet than admitted actually searching it out.

But all jurors who admitted looking for information said they had done so online.

A graphic explaining how jurors on high profile cases admit to searching online

What was clear from the results was that the more important the case, the more likely a juror was to look for information.

So while only 5% of jurors on standard cases admitted looking for information online - the rate among those hearing high-profile cases was almost three times greater.

Again, we don't know whether this searching influenced their deliberations, but judges take the issue very seriously.

Three juries were dismissed in 2008 after judges discovered jurors had been surfing for information relating to the case they were hearing.

Bob Satchwell, head of the Society of Editors, said: "It's interesting that this research seems to show that the fade factor seems to work.

"The problem with the internet is that the material is still there [when a case comes to trial], it stays there and also there are parts of the internet that don't play by the rules.

"By and large the traditional media, whether its newspapers or broadcasting, play by the rules very carefully - but that doesn't apply to bloggers and other sites which jurors would go to.

"We have argued for a long time now there needs to be some in-depth academic research into actual decisions by jurors so we can get a real picture of how they reach their decisions and whether they are influenced by media reports."

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