The truth as usual is probably found somewhere in between. However, from my perspective one of the most interesting observations made by leftist critic Noam Chomsky in his book “Manufacturing Consent” was the reliance on the media for official government sources. At a national level depending on the regime, that may taint news coverage, although these days media attempt to balance most reports by covering the views of the opposition.
I had often noticed as the recipient of news releases from various local agencies, the tendency for the local newspapers to reprint these news releases as stories with little to no follow up on their own. In particular, UC Davis on almost a daily basis will release at least one news story with a press release, the District Attorney’s office will on a periodic basis, as will the county.
I first really noticed it after I read the District Attorney’s Office Press Release on the Ajay Dev sentencing. There were no other reporters in the courtroom, and thus both the Woodland Daily Democrat and the Davis Enterprise had to rely on the DA’s Press Release and previous press clippings (much of that also from Press Releases) for a story.
But this past week, illustrates the ability of the District Attorney’s office to generate favorable press coverage at the drop of a press release.
Here is the press release about a Jury Tampering that occurred during a domestic violence trial that just concluded.
District Attorney’s Release:
District Attorney Jeff Reisig announced that on August 21, 2009, after a three day trial, a Yolo County jury convicted Miguel Dagoberto Lopez, of Woodland, of felony domestic violence for the February 2009 beating of the mother of his child, Angela Gonzales, despite the victim’s efforts to lie for Mr. Lopez and even tamper with the jury using MySpace. According to Ms. Gonzales’s initial report to the police, Mr. Lopez became angry when the victim did not have money for cigarettes and so he struck her in the face repeatedly while she held the couple’s 16-month-old child, then held her by her hair and battered her head against the floor of their apartment approximately eight times. During the trial, however, Ms. Gonzales testified that she lied about the assault because she was angry with Mr. Lopez, that Mr. Lopez has never struck her, and that the swelling and bruising on her face, which was photographed, was the result of her throwing up due to migraine headaches. In response, prosecuting attorney Ryan J. Couzens introduced evidence showing that Gonzales was attempting to help Lopez get away with his crime, including evidence of a restraining order sought by Ms. Gonzales over two weeks after the incident. There were at least three prior instances where Mr. Lopez had assaulted Ms. Gonzales. Amongst those prior events was a 2007 incident where police responded to reports of “screaming and choking” coming from the couple’s apartment, where a distraught Ms. Gonzales, then pregnant, was found amongst broken and disordered items in their apartment with various injuries, including scratches, bruising and a cut to her hand. Ms. Gonzales told police that she had simply knocked over a vase, but officers reported that Gonzales kept nervously looking over her shoulder in the direction of Mr. Lopez.
“It is a tragic reality of many domestic violence cases that the victim will report an assault then, because of self-blame, humiliation or coercion, will attempt to cover up the crime, only to be assaulted again,” reports Couzens. “Fortunately,” continued Couzens, “our system allows a jury to hear both explanations and decide which one they believe.” In this case, however, Ms. Gonzales took the additional step of locating one of the jurors on MySpace, prior to the end of the case, and pleading with the juror to acquit Mr. Lopez. The court excused that juror and allowed the case to continue to jury deliberations, during which the jury convicted Lopez of felony domestic violence. Based on the subsequent investigation, the District Attorney’s Office will be filing criminal charges against Angela Gonzales for jury tampering. “It is regrettable that a victim of a crime must be charged with a crime herself,” said District Attorney Jeff Reisig, “but communicating with an empanelled jury risks the integrity of the justice system and cannot be allowed.” For more information, contact the District Attorney’s office at (530) 666-8356.
Here’s what you read in the Davis Enterprise under the byline, “Enterprise Staff.”
“The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday the conviction of a Woodland man for battering his child’s mother – a woman who now faces jury tampering charges after allegedly contacting a juror on MySpace, a social networking Web site.
Miguel Dagoberto Lopez was found guilty Friday of felony domestic violence in connection with the February 2009 beating, during which Lopez struck the woman in the face and head repeatedly while she held the couple’s 16-month-old child. The dispute was over money for cigarettes, Deputy District Attorney Ryan Couzens said.
During the trial, victim Angela Gonzales retracted the allegations, saying she lied about the assault because she was angry with Lopez, Couzens said. She also testified that the swelling and bruising injuries she suffered were caused by vomiting due to migraine headaches.
However, Couzens introduced evidence of prior assaults by Lopez against Gonzales, including a 2007 incident during which police responded to reports of ‘screaming and choking’ coming from the couple’s apartment. A pregnant and visibly injured Gonzales reportedly told the officers that she had knocked over a vase.
During the three-day trial, Gonzales allegedly contacted a juror in the case via MySpace and pleaded with her to acquit Lopez. The juror was excused, and Couzens said the DA’s office plans to file jury tampering charges against Gonzales.
‘It is a tragic reality of many domestic violence cases that the victim will report an assault then, because of self-blame, humiliation or coercion, will attempt to cover up the crime, only to be assaulted again,’ Couzens said in a news release. ‘Fortunately, our system allows a jury to hear both explanations and decide which one they believe.'”
Notice that we do not get the other side of the story. They reformat the story to fit their format, but the District Attorney’s office gets to shape the news.
Some may wonder at this point, what’s the big deal? Well for the coverage of this case, perhaps there is no big deal. Or perhaps there is.
The first problem is obvious to everyone, that is that the news is coming directly from the District Attorney’s office. On the other hand it can be argued that in this case, there was a finding of fact that supported the District Attorney’s office–at least in part with the jury verdict. It is also a fact that the DA’s office is now alleging jury tampering and filing or planning to file charges.
As Chomsky argues in his book, one of the biggest biases is not always the bias of commission but that of omission. We only get the stories that the District Attorney’s office deems worthy of news attention. That means we do not get stories about acquittals. That means we do not get stories about wrongful prosecution. In short, we get very one-sided stories from the District Attorney’s office.
This is not of course a charge against the District Attorney. We expect them to send our selective press releases. However, the way the system works is that the local newspapers do not have large staffs to follow all of the court cases. So unless the case is high profile and has received large amounts of attention, the Enterprise, Daily Democrat, and others are not going to follow these cases. The result is that we only find out about two types of cases–one, the cases that are high profile and two, the cases where the District Attorney’s office sends out a press release to tell us about the bad person they put away in jail.
It is a system that serves those in power very well and those who believe the system is in need of reform not so well. The public gets the read the good things its government is doing and the newspapers rarely have the time or resources to look into the not so good things. Unless someone like the Dev’s bring it to the attention of the media, their side of the story rarely gets reported and even when it does, it is an afterthought and never followed through on.
Project Censored used to have a project that every year they would highlight the top stories that were not covered by the media. Then they amended it to the top stories that were under-reported by the media as the advent of the internet and alternative media rose and access to news stories previously underreported rose with it.
Along the same lines, researchers in the effects of media coverage showed through experiments that exposure to the news coverage does not generally impact what people think. People bring into the receipt of information heavy and strong existing beliefs about the world–whether liberal, conservative, or moderate–people do not change their views on an issue based on coverage. However, what these researchers did find was that the media has a very strong ability to impact what people think about. So the topics that they choose to cover are weighed more heavily and more important than topics that are not covered as much or as frequently.
Researchers call this agenda setting and that remains the strongest impact of media cover–the ability to determine what is and what is not important in people’s minds. What we see as we look at look news coverage here is the strong ability of local government agencies to set the agenda by controlling to a large but subconscious degree the local media’s access to information.
This is not necessarily active control in that a news agency could go and seek out other stories, but rather it simply takes advantage of the structure of how news is reported.
—David M. Greenwald reporting