Netflix's 'Trial by Media' Puts Journalistic Bias Under the Microscope
Directed by Skye Borgman, Garrett Bradley, Yance Ford, Brian McGinn, Sierra Pettengill, and Tony Yacenda
Published May 15, 2020"If it bleeds, it leads" is a saying drilled into you in journalism school. What it means is that death and fear-mongering tend to make the most attention-grabbing news stories. Exploitative or not, this is the premise under which news is made. Netflix's Trial by Media interrogates this premise, all the while wanting the viewer to remain cognizant of the fact that news is something that is always mediated.
The series (which was executive produced in part by George Clooney) brings on a different director for each of the six episodes. Focusing on six different crimes in the U.S. over the course of the '80s, '90s, and early '00s, each episode looks at the ensuing trial, and how broadcast journalism and "gavel to gavel" coverage (the introduction of cameras into the courtroom, broadcasting trials live) turned real-life events into something like soap operas that people could watch from home. The cases turned either into a form of entertainment for viewers, or causes behind which to rally, and in both of these instances, Trial by Murder shows how journalists framed the narrative that the public responded to.
The title sequence depicts the show's name as it morphs through decades of the stylization of major news outlets, eventually landing on its bare-bones, sans-serif font. This show is a slow burner that isn't so much about putting media on trial as it is about examining the manner in which news is made and the reactions of its consumers. Turning the formula behind popular true-crime series such as Forensic Files on its head, the show is refreshingly responsible and very self-aware in the sense that it knows it can't, without lapsing into bad faith, put media on trial, because it is itself a bit of media. Rather, it questions authority, exposing the fallibility of those who make what we consume when we watch the news.
Each episode is gripping and does an excellent job of telling a single story from various vantage points, interviewing various and conflicting people who partook of the event. Each episode also establishes important historical context, showing how the cases struck a particular nerve for the first time in American audiences, whether it be regarding ambivalence toward the rawness of ambush television (The Jerry Springer Show, The Jenny Jones Show), increasing frustrations in '80s New York surrounding crime and police brutality, or the willingness (or lack thereof) to believe a rape victim. While journalists in each case break the story, they also cover how Americans responded to what was happening, including their reactions to the act of broadcasting the trials themselves.
In the episode "Big Dan's," a rape trial in the '80s is broadcast live on CNN, which means that the victim's identity is accidentally exposed. A viewer interviewed by local news says that he prefers watching the trial over the soap operas he usually watches — it's just as interesting, he says. The episode raises very interesting questions around the kind of information journalists should print — at what point in reporting on a story does a journalist go too far?
The episode "41 Shots" looks at the murder of Amadou Diallo — four white NYPD cops murdered an unarmed Diallo at his own doorstep in Rudy Giuliani's New York, firing 41 shots. This episode looks at the failure of journalists to focus on the victim, how news outlets neglected to humanize Diallo, while also looking at the civil rights movements that were inspired. It's sobering and heartbreaking, and the episode does a good job of interviewing players from all camps — speaking with defense lawyers and the prosecution, and allowing Diallo's mother to speak on behalf of her son.
Trial by Media will get viewers thinking not just about how news is made, but also about how we consume news. The series doesn't pass judgement over the media, because it is a show itself, everything said within each episode will always be mediated — something made obvious in the way that each episode's director frames their interviewee.
The show depicts media's culpability, and its own culpability, in constructing a particular narrative. It's imbued with an overall feeling of remorse. It goes back to speak with the journalists who made the news — who chose to lead with blood — and also allows those who didn't speak then to speak now. It's a reminder to, even when watching this show, remain aware and alert. (Netflix)