Is the Media the New Crown Prosecutor? Celebrity, Sexual Assault and Scandal in Canada (a law studen
Louis CK, Kevin Spacey, Jian Ghomeshi, and now Jacob Hoggard. You don’t even need to know how to spell their names correctly and you will still find hundreds of articles offering opinions on what ‘really’ happened. The sexual harassment and assault accusations, and for some, the trials captured the country’s attention, and society’s extended commentary every step of the way.
In the age of social media and living life openly on Facebook, it is easier than ever for the public to offer personal interpretations of issues that are publicized. Traditionally, the media had the role of holding those in power accountable and apprising the public of tenacious issues. As of late, there seems to be a shift where contemporary articles are in demand, and questionably subjective opinions are being published without stating the subjectivity or bias. Ironically, this comes at a time when critical reading skills are on the decline, and catchy headlines seem to replace the need to read articles in full. With cognizant reading being replaced with clickbait, and empirically reviewed articles now deemed “fake news”, the general public seems to be jumping on board with the first persuasive article they read.
Dramatic headlines, polarizing views, and lack of independent verification are becoming staple fodder in the media. Unsubstantiated authorities are becoming “go-to” sources for information, and these ‘sources’ seem to forego the legal notion of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. Articles are being written and circulated with damning language written to convince the public and condemn the accused. Ghomeshi’s trial, and the recent Hoggard accusations, exemplify this notion and this distortion in the media. Both Ghomeshi and Hoggard faced immediate adverse professional repercussions for accusations made and endorsed through media’s attention to the matters. Hoggard’s band Hedley has been dropped by their management team and will be taking an “indefinite” hiatus from their band1 despite having had accusations of rape and sexual misconduct dating back to 2005.2 Ghomeshi was fired from his show, Q, by the CBC. These ramifications occurred only after sexual assault allegations surfaced, and before Ghomeshi’s was found not guilty at trial. It seems to be that in the recent years the media has shifted to convicting accused individuals long before the court system becomes involved, a dangerous precedent that is being set in society.
While it is imperative that victims receive justice, it is just as crucial in our society that those who have been wrongfully accused not face penalties if they are innocent or not guilty. Due to polarizing media intervention, society seems to make decisions of guilt or innocence before the courts get involved. This raises some controversial points.
On the one hand, victims of sexual assault and rape are able to see immediate justice served at a personal level, especially when there are vast power imbalances between the accused and the victim. Victims can be empowered to step forward given that the media now seems to be less condemning of the victims coming forward.
However, on the other hand, the trend in society is that when allegations surface, before they are verified or legitimatized through the courts or any other formal legitimate source, action is being taken based on public perception and the accused are being held liable as though they were found guilty in the courts. This is a dangerous path for society where accusations brought forward suddenly have deleterious impacts on the lives of the accused. Furthermore, even if the courts find the accused innocent, their professional, public, and personal lives and reputations will never recover.
Sexual assault cases are among the most difficult for the courts to handle. According to a 2012 study, it was found that out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, only 33 are reported, 12 result in charges, 6 go to trial, and of those 6, less than 3 will have convictions.3
Empowering victims to come forward about sexual assault and harassment is crucial, but it is not the media’s role to bias society by reporting incomplete or unverified statements. It also becomes a point of severe contention that the media could be influencing individuals to “cry wolf” knowing that unsubstantiated allegations could lead to ramifications that ruin careers and lives.
The role of the judicial system is to seek out justice and provide consequences for wrong actions. The media seems to have anointed themselves with the self-appointed task of seeking out ramifications without verification. Instead of seeking out justice, the media assumes where justice should lay, and through the pointed articles published, cause long-term, irreversible, and often damaging effects on the lives of the accused who may be innocent.
The greater general society seems to avoid critical reading and social media headlines are becoming all that many people read. When an uninformed society only reads part of the story, or is unaware of biases being pushed by the media, the consequences can be vast and enduring.
Headlines such as “Hedley Calls It Quits After Lead Singer Jacob Hoggard Admits Wrongdoing”,4 “Jacob Hoggard accused says singer’s apology ‘not enough’”,5 and “Jacob Hoggard Disregards Apology & Makes Vulgar Remarks at Hedley’s Latest Show”6 all have an implied direction. Yet, upon reading the articles and seeking out other evidence, the headlines are evidently misleading and may present the facts of the situation in a skewed light.
The media wields great power in society and is able to help ensure that society stays informed about current events. However, it is vital that the media utilizes this power correctly, and does not aim to misinforme or mislead society through dramatic headlines, hidden agendas, and biased works.
1 https://www.narcity.com/news/hedley-calls-it-quits-after-lead-singer-jacob-hoggard-admits-wrongdoing; https://www.narcity.com/gossip/hedley-dropped-by-management-after-allegedly-drugging-underage-concertgoer
Other works referenced: