Pro/Con: Does the media have too much influence on public opinion?

By Mollie Henry

Pro: Media exposes important societal issues

Many of us have indulged in the “true crime” dramas, such as “Serial” and “Making a Murderer,” that have recently piqued the nation’s curiosity. Some believe that we have been caught up in the tide of hysteria and given the media, cleverly disguised as entertainment, too much power to sway our beliefs.

They argue that, in the end, the various scenarios created and then exacerbated by media coverage amount to nothing, or much less than they have been made out to be and that the power we have given the media results in more harm to our society than good.

It is undeniable, however, that in many cases, the media has acted as a divining rod for the skeletons hiding in society’s closet. And, while these documentaries may or may not be entirely factual, there is one important, unembellished fact that they do expose: corruption and incompetence in our justice system has led to wrongful conviction. Rather than avoiding or distancing ourselves from media it would be wiser to embrace it as tool to keep us better informed and keep societies more accountable.

“Making a Murderer” and “Serial” follow the criminal cases and trials of two separate men, Steven Avery and Adnan Syed, calling into question the guilty convictions that were handed down by the jury. In June 2007, the main subject of Making a Murder, Steven Avery, was convicted to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the rape and murder of Teresa Halbach.

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Since “Making a Murderer” debuted on Netflix on December 18, 2015, a petition to free Avery reached almost 130,000 signatures. The call to pardon Avery was so extreme that the White House was obliged to respond, stating that because the trial and conviction were handled by the state of Wisconsin, the federal government does not have the power to overturn the verdict.

The overwhelming response to stories like those presented by “Making a Murderer” and Serial, could be construed as people being too easily persuaded by the agenda of the media. But it can also be seen, and I believe rightly so, as the response of a nation that was founded on the ideals of justice, and still holds those values dear.

The Innocence Project, created in order to seek out and overturn wrongful convictions, was started by just such people, committed to preserving and restoring justice. Since the Innocence Project was founded, there have been over 300 people exonerated of crimes they were wrongfully convicted for through the use of DNA evidence.

And, while of course not all of those cases involved corruption or incompetence, it is important to expose the ones that did in order to make sure that justice has actually been served. 

While it may not be entirely clear in the cases of Avery and Syed whether injustice did occur, it certainly has occurred in our nation’s history. It is also true that we as a nation can be too easily influenced by the the media, but in the fight against injustice and corruption, informed media users are better than non-media users.

Rather than worrying that the media may have too much power in our society, concern yourself with giving it the right power: to expose corruption and incite us to action. Action that, through things like social media, students are more efficiently able to take. Recently, at Mizzou, we saw just how powerful various media platforms can be for students who are actively trying to correct injustice.

But in order to do this we must be savvy media users. Check sources, read as much as you can about a given topic, don’t trust everything you read on tumblr, or believe everything you watch on Netflix, and be open minded when discussing issues such as these in order to become as informed about your world as possible.

The media is powerful, but as a tool, not a gospel, and as such the truth must be gleaned from the clutter. I would encourage you, as a part of this campus and a part of this world, to try to do just that.

Mollie is a graduate student in Art and Design.

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Con: Media too influential in swaying public opinion

We are living in a time and age where media has a substantial impact on society. It has an incredible pull on how people perceive and view certain things. Recently, the podcast “Serial” has swept over the nation and caused a stir in the legal justice system, as millions of listeners tuned in every week to hear Adnan Syed’s compelling case for innocence.

The huge success of “Serial” and the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer” proves that mass media, such as these programs, have control over how citizens view systems in our society that were seemingly untouchable before. This begs the question of whether or not we as citizens are giving the media too much power in this day and age, as it now seems able to direct public interest toward any issue, however small.

“Serial” tells the heart-wrenching story of Syed, a high school senior living in Baltimore in 1999, who was accused and convicted of killing his high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. He has been in prison for 15 years now and to this day has maintained his innocence, and has tried to reopen his case several times to no avail.

As the story unfolds after 12 weekly installments, it becomes clear to the listener that there were many holes in Syed’s case, and it leaves it up to the listener to decide whether he is guilty or innocent.

“Serial” has quickly become one of the most popular podcasts of all time, also being the fastest podcast to ever reach 5 million downloads by November 2014, and reaching 40+ million downloads by December 2014.

Ever since the substantial interest in Syed’s case, many people have gone to great lengths to prove his innocence, including students working on the Innocence Project from the University of Virginia Law who are investigating leads in Syed’s favor.

It was also announced in November 2015 that Syed’s case has been officially re-opened, and a hearing with all the new evidence will be taking place.

This podcast has drawn an incredible amount of attention to just one man in prison. It serves as a great example of how powerful and persuasive the media can be. It is not for me to say whether or not Syed deserved to have his trial re-opened, but it does show that as a society, we have let the media control aspects of our lives and sway our opinions on important matters such as our evaluation of the justice system.

The power of the media must be limited, because one can never be sure if the information being distributed is the truth. Young people need to be able to have strong opinions that they themselves form without media influence.

The upcoming presidential election has given the media a stage to show just how powerful it truly is. Many candidates use the media in order to sway voters in their favor, or at least against their opponents. How the candidates are portrayed by the media and news outlets has a major effect on how well they do in the polls, because voters are so easily swayed by the information made available to them.

“Serial” and “Making a Murderer”, with their newfound power to reach the masses, could potentially rock the legal system even more in the upcoming years as they brings to light more cases of potentially innocent people serving time in prison. While this is likely a good thing, given that it could exonerate innocent prisoners, there is a line that must be drawn with how far the public takes information derived from the media. 

Allowing the media to influence the legal system, such as with the re-opening of Syed’s case, puts us in very dangerous territory. It would be far preferable to move on whatever issues lie in the justice system after a comprehensive investigative report rather than a podcast or documentary likely embellished for entertainment value.

It is normal for the media to have some sort of control in this modern era, because it is all around us. However, now more than ever, it is important to realize the effect the media might be having on you, and try to maintain an unbiased mindset to form your own opinions.

When you are listening to a message brought to you by mass media, it is important to be aware that not everything you might be told is the truth, and be able to form your own opinions on the matter, so as not to give the media more power as the digital age continues.

Courtney is a sophomore in LAS.

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