Political psychology has offered the theory of agenda-setting to explain how the media influences community sentiment (Iyengar & Kinder, 1985). Research shows that in the political domain, media coverage of particular social issues and social problems have made viewers think the issues are more important than issues that have been neglected by the media. Media coverage of an issue makes it more readily available, or salient, to decision-makers and therefore increases the perceived importance of the issue. The agenda-setting theory of the media has been applied to the legal domain (Kovera, 2002).

The media has a powerful influence on our culture and shapes our views of people in society (Elasmar, 2014; Perry, 2001). Pretrial publicity has more influence on jurors’ verdicts when the publicity is related to the case under consideration rather than other unrelated cases (Greene & Wade, 1988). This suggests documentary films released before a trial will influence jurors’ decisions about the case discussed in the film. Documentaries are powerful in changing community sentiment. In nine high-profile cases (Hund, 2016), documentaries changed jurors’ minds, including
(1) overturning a murder verdict for Brendan Dassey due to the film exposing flimsy evidence (Making a Murderer);
(2) obtaining a guilty verdict for Robert Durst after a documentary uncovered new evidence (The Jinx);
(3) earning a new trial after evidence was uncovered in a documentary about Adnan Syed (podcasts Serial and Undisclosed);
(4) overturning a murder verdict for three men serving prison time due to a film with Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp as advocates (Paradise Lost);
(5) serving 12 years in prison before being acquitted, Randall Dale Adams was freed after The Thin Blue Line increased public outrage over unreliable eyewitness testimony;
(6) obtaining a retrial for conviciton for the muder of his wife, Michael Peterson (The Staircase);
(7) reopening a case to turn a suicide ruling into a murder investigation for Jeremy Banks (A Death in St. Augustine);
(8) reinvestigating a sexual abuse conviction and earning parol for Jesse Friendman (Capturing the Friedmans);
(9) sentencing a serial killer, Lonnie Franklin, to death after a documentary film director identified victims the police could not (Tales of the Grim Sleeper). There is also evidence that public outrage over the murder of Lacy Peterson and her unborn child, and the media’s villainization of Scott Peterson, may have biased the jurors to convict Scott Peterson on solely circumstantial evidence (Trial by Fury; Roe, 2016).

Well known or popular Hollywood “True Crime Stories” tend to make people believe the criminal justice system is flawed (Silbey, 2005). It results in distrusting the system. However, films on unknown cases can be influential in providing knowledge about the case. Documentaries can elicit pity for the victims.

Why Does Pretrial Publicity Affect Decision Making?

Research suggests agenda setting can influence jurors’ judgments and perceptions of plaintiffs’ and defendants’ credibility (Ruva, Guenther, & Yarbrough, 2011). Research also suggests pretrial publicity can make guilty verdicts more likely because relevant information is more easily available in memory (Greene & Wade, 1988). Some research suggests narratives encourage short-cut information processing (e.g., heuristics) rather than systematic processing (Winterbottom et al., 2008).

What Factors Increase or Decrease the Influence of Pretrial Publicity?

A meta-analysis analyzing data from 44 experiments and 5,755 individuals shows that pretrial publicity greatly influences judgments (Steblay, Besirevic, Fulero, & Jimenez-Lorente,1999). Community members who were exposed to negative pretrial publicity were more likely to make guilty verdicts than people not exposed to publicity or exposed to less negative publicity. The strength of the pretrial publicity’s influence is increased when researchers asked individuals to make a pretrial verdict when participants were members of the potential juror pool when there were multiple sources of evidence with a negativity bias against the defendant, when the pretrial publicity covers real facts in the case, when the case content is murder, sexual abuse, or drugs, and finally when the time between pretrial publicity and the jurors’ judgment is longer (more than 1 week). The strength of the pretrial publicity’s influence decreased when participants were students, when participants used generally rather than specific pretrial publicity information, when publicity content varied (e.g., inadmissible evidence, mistaken acquittal, negative character, or race of defendant), with certain types of crimes (e.g., robbery, embezzlement, personal injury), and when judgments were made post-trial but pre-deliberation. The most influential form of media was both newspapers and videos. Further, narrative information, or storytelling, influences decision making more than presenting statistical information or no additional information (Winterbottom et al., 2008). First-person narratives are twice as effective as second or third person narratives (Winterbottom et al., 2008).

In an experiment, Kovera (2002) showed that exposing participants to a pro-defense rape case were more likely to state they needed more evidence to convict the defendant compared to participants who watched a pro-prosecution rape case. In a second experiment, Kovera (2002) showed that news coverage of the rape case influenced jurors’ ratings of the importance of evidence. The media coverage changed the standards potential jurors used to determine guilt. Further, the more potential jurors are exposed to case information in the media, the stronger their opinions about guilt become (Freedman & Burke, 1996; Kondroski, 2018).

Mock jurors exposed to negative pretrial publicity were more likely to find the defendant guilty and rated the defendant as less credible compared to mock jurors who were not exposed to any pretrial information (Ruva et al., 2011). Similarly, exposure to positive pretrial publicity in favor of the defendant resulted in more not guilty votes, lower guilty ratings, and higher credibility ratings than mock jurors not exposed to pretrial publicity. Exposure to negatively pretrial publicity against the defendant made mock jurors feel angrier and feel like expressing anger, which in turn increased their guilt ratings and decreased their credibility ratings. Mock jurors exposed to positive, pro-defendant pretrial publicity reported more positive emotions, which in turn predicted less guilt ratings and verdicts, and higher credibility ratings. Pretrial publicity, whether positive or negative, did not affect mock jurors’ anxiety, depression, or curiosity.

Elasmar, M. G. (2014). The impact of international television: A paradigm shift. New York, NY: Routledge.

Freedman, J. L., & Burke, T. M. (1996). The effect of pretrial publicity: The Bernardo case. Canadian Journal of Criminology, 38(3), 253-270.

Greene, E., & Wade, R. (1988). Of private talk and public print: General pre‐trial publicity and juror decision‐making. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 2(2), 123-135.

Hunt, K. (2016, October 9). My 9 true-crime documentaries that change their cases’ verdicts. Thrillist Entertainment. Retrieved from https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/true-crime-documentaries-serial-jinx-making-a-murder-changed-verdicts

Iyengar, S., & Kinder, D. R. (1985). Psychological accounts of agenda-setting. Mass Media and Political Thought, 117-141.

Kondroski, K. (2018). Social media’s influence on pre-trial publicity. CUNY Academic Works. https://academicworks.cuny.edu/jj_etds/134

Kovera, M. B. (2002). The effects of general pretrial publicity on juror decisions: An examination of moderators and mediating mechanisms. Law and Human Behavior, 26(1), 43-72.

Perry, D. K. (2001). Theory and research in mass communication: Contexts and consequences. New York, NY: Routledge.

Roe, M. (2016, March 28). Film raises questions about Scott Peterson verdict: Peterson’s attorney, members of the Peterson family will be present for screening at American Documentary Film Festival. Palm Springs Life. Retrieved from https://www.palmspringslife.com/film-raises-questions-about-scott-peterson-verdict/

Ruva, C. L., Guenther, C. C., & Yarbrough, A. (2011). Positive and negative pretrial publicity: The roles of impression formation, emotion, and predecisional distortion. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 38(5), 511-534.

Silbey, S. S. (2005). After legal consciousness. Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 1, 323-368.

Steblay, N. M., Besirevic, J., Fulero, S. M., & Jimenez-Lorente, B. (1999). The effects of pretrial publicity on juror verdicts: A meta-analytic review. Law and Human Behavior, 23(2), 219-235.

Winterbottom, A., Bekker, H. L., Conner, M., & Mooney, A. (2008). Does narrative information bias individual’s decision making? A systematic review. Social Science & Medicine, 67(12), 2079-2088.