The role of the news media in the outcome of the Tyco corporate corruption case has some legal experts and journalists predicting a less public judicial process, says the New York Times. New York trial judge Michael Obus angrily declared a mistrial Friday in the six-month Tyco trial after a juror received a threatening letter “highly critical” of her apparent intention to hold out for acquittal. Last week, breaking journalistic convention, The Wall Street Journal’s Web site and The New York Post published the juror’s name. “She would have never gotten this threatening letter if the media had not gotten carried away and done what they did,” said law Prof. Shari S. Diamond of Northwestern University. “A lot of things went wrong in this trial, but its clear that steps like sequestration or anonymous juries will become more frequent if the media is unable to restrain itself.”
In a highly competitive news environment, conventions that had governed court reporting fell away after a juror seemingly inserted herself into the public debate. “It has been an unwritten rule in the news business that even though jurors names are public information, you gather those facts, but then hold them,” said David Bookstaver, communications director for the New York State Office of Court Administrators. “You now see what happens when those conventional rules fall apart.”
The Journal and The Post defended their decisions to name the juror, Ruth B. Jordan, saying that she had made herself a public figure by flashing a thumb-to-forefinger “okay” sign.
Tom Goldstein, a journalism professor at Arizona State University and a former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism of the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said that the news media’s role in the declaration had been overblown and most reporters showed “a great deal of restraint.”
“The real question is whether people will view this as some sort of aberration or a prototype of cases to come,” said Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment lawyer. “I would hope and think that nothing fundamental would change, but if there is another trial where the presence of the press and its reporting creates a problem, then things might change.”
The Washington Post quoted Mark Zauderer, chairman of a commission examining the role of juries in the New York courts, as calling the case “troubling” and promising to look into the system of naming potential jurors in open court. “This has the potential to corrupt the entire process,” he said. “We should reexamine to what extent we need greater protection of jurors’ identities.” Fordham University law professor Abraham Abramovsky predicted that some courts and legislatures will consider barring the media from publishing the names of jurors, at least while cases are ongoing.
University of Minnesota media ethics and law professor Jane E. Kirtley said media critics are drawing the wrong message. “I am tired of the idea that jurors have a right to anonymity. Jurors’ names have historically been public. Government actions are public in order that the public can hold government accountable,” she said. If someone abused public information by contacting Jordan, “we need to punish the bad actor. That’s the remedy, not secrecy,” Kirtley said. Jury tampering is a misdemeanor in New York.