The stories of men exonerated by DNA results, released from prison or even death row, could be very interesting stories.
Unfortunately, the mainstream media in the United States sure knows how to screw up a good true crime tale.
Photo: Exonerated from Florida's Death Row: Rudolph Holton
If you've seen or heard the stories of these men on Larry King, on NPR, or in your local paper, you may have noticed that they all take on the same flavorlessness after a while.
When I hear the story of someone who's been exonerated by science, I want to know why. What was the evidence that put him behind bars? Was it a case of mistaken identity? Prosecutorial misconduct? Recanted evidence? What? Who screwed up this one? When is he going to be arrested and disbarred!?
Some reporters manage to cover exonerations without ever bothering to find out. They sometimes mention prosecutorial misconduct, but they don't often say a name.
After all, why would they spend the time studying the case, talking to the lawyers, and reading transcripts, when they can just type up a cute little 8" blurb about a former convict's first trip to a shopping mall in 20 years?
I'm not the only one who has noticed. David Niven of Florida Atlantic University wrote a fascinating article for the Journal of Criminal Justice & Popular Culture. It's Southern Newspaper Coverage of Exonerations from Death Row and it's a corker. He studied the content of newspaper articles about exonerations and measured their shallowness and "eerie regularity."
Says Niven: "Those who were executed received more than three times as much coverage as exonerated people on death row, which is akin to giving three times as much coverage to the planes that land safely compared to the ones that crash."
Seems to me that both sets of stories are worth serious study. Of course, that requires serious journalists.
Once in a while a real journalist who knows what he's doing takes on one of these stories. Recently Bill Moyers of PBS interviewed an exonerated man named Jerry Miller - it was easily one of the most fascinating interviews I've seen in years.
It can be done.