Fair and Unbalanced: The Tale of Two Trials

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Bob Butler
April 6, 2011

Since March 21st reporters representing the cream of American journalism have been camped out in the Bay Area covering two high profile trials.

In an Oakland courtroom two men are accused of being involved in three murders, including that of Chauncey Bailey, a journalist who was writing a story about Your Black Muslim Bakery.

In San Francisco, baseball home run king Barry Bonds is accused of telling a federal grand jury that he never knowingly took steroids.

Aside from the fact that both trials are taking place, and all the defendants are African American, there is a disparity in how these cases are being treated by the media, both local and national.

The Bailey trial is being covered by less than a dozen reporters from mostly local media: the Oakland Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, KTVU, American Urban Radio Networks, CBS Radio, NPR, the Bay Guardian, Associated Press and ABC 7 News, several websites and bloggers. Some are there every day, others are not. To be fair there was more media coverage for the first few days of the trial.

According to KCBS reporter Doug Sovern who is covering the Bonds trial, the press list includes, “KCBS, KGO Radio (some of the time), KQED (occasionally), Westwood One, Channels 2 (KTVU), 4, 5, 7, 11, Comcast Sports Net, ESPN, CNN, Bloomberg, the Associated Press, Agency France Presse, the Chronicle (a reporter and a columnist, every day; sometimes two columnists,) the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Bay Area News Group, including the San Jose Mercury News, Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated, a few other bloggers, stringers and people I don't recognize,” writes Sovern in an email.

“I would say that adds up to about 30, plus still photographers. Probably close to 40 in all, plus THREE sketch artists!”

Media experts say the Bailey trial is much more significant when you look at how both cases impact society.

Louis Freedberg“Obviously Barry Bonds is one of the greatest baseball players of all time,” said Louis Freedberg, senior reporter for California Watch, one of the units at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley.

“You add to that the celebrity factor in a society that is completely obsessed with celebrities, regardless if they do good or bad, I can see how it’s easy to define this (Bailey) as a local story and shunt it aside.”

But the problem is society depends on journalists to provide truth and information and to hold those in power accountable.  There are many countries where journalists are arrested and/or killed for writing stories that someone doesn’t like.

An independent press was a top priority for the United States’ founding fathers, right behind establishing the military.

“Establishing a free press was viewed as fundamental,” said Freedberg. “I don’t think they talked about baseball players at that time and so when you have a journalist being assassinated, that does strike at the core of what this society stands for, or should stand for.”

That belief was so strong after Bailey was killed that journalists, including the author, came together to form the Chauncey Bailey Project to finish Bailey’s work and to make sure that everyone who was involved in the assassination was brought to justice.

Robert Rosenthal“Some media are covering this deeply, the ones who covered it here, so I don’t want to make a blanket condemnation but, yeah, I think the Bailey trial has much broader symbolism and importance to the United States than the trial of Barry Bonds,” said Robert Rosenthal, Executive Director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and the executive editor of the Chauncey Bailey Project.

Another issue that has caused concern in the African American community is how boys and men of color are portrayed in the news media.

“Usually when you see this demographic in the press, they are accused of crime, victims of crime or they are playing sports,” said Dori Maynard, president of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

In the Bonds case, the media are hitting two out of three, a great average for baseball but a Bonds conviction will have virtually no impact on American democracy.

The media should cover the Bonds trial but it should not forget about the Bailey trial, which will still be going when the Bonds trial ends.

If those who are on trial for killing Bailey are, indeed, guilty and they are allowed to go free it will send a message that journalists, the people who keep society informed and hold those in power accountable, are fair game.


*NOTE: ABC 7 News and Associated Press have also been covering the Bailey trial. 



A suggestion

Excellent article! It would be even stronger if you examined the content being produced about these two trials. Specifically, contrasting where the Bonds' and Bailey stories are appearing in the paper, and square inches of coverage including photos.

Editors use placement and space as prime indicators of the priority they place on stories. These are also cues the public uses to decide what's important. For TV, you can check on which makes the opening segment and amount of time spent on each trial. For the Web, you can check in the morning to see if the story is played in the top half of the home page as well as count photos and paragraphs devoted to each trial. 

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