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Juror bias through the scientific lens

The free press-fair struggle has helped shape the freedom of the press, including press access to the courtroom and a heavy burden of proving the necessity of press gag orders. Many legal and media experts have weighed in on the benefits and disadvantages of allowing pre- and mid-trial publicity of criminal cases. The conflict even inspired the American Bar Association to release free press-fair trial guidelines. But many psychology researchers have also taken an interest in objectively quantifying the effects of press coverage on juror bias.

In one 2012 study, “Timing and Type of Pretrial Publicity Affect Mock -Jurors’ Decisions and Predicisional Distortion,” researchers from different branches of the University of South Florida evaluated mock-jurors’ responses to exposure to pretrial publicity (shortened to PTP in the text of the study). Each mock juror read the same eight pieces of pretrial news stories. There were four stories with an anti-defendant slant and four with a pro-defendant slant. The only thing that varied in the mock jurors’ exposure to these stories was the order they read them in.

The researchers had 207 college students ages 18 to 57 meet in groups of 12 to fill out mock juror questionnaires. All the students were citizens legally eligible for serving on a jury. After the initial meeting, students were expected to read a piece of pretrial publicity and complete an online survey each day. After a week or two, the group of 12 would reconvene to watch prerecorded trial proceedings on a television and render individual verdicts (there were no jury deliberations).

The researchers concluded:

One important implication of this study is that the timing of conflicting PTP matters. For the defendant, it is important not to leave negative PTP unchallenged. Doing so could result in bias against the defendant becoming so strong that it is difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. In contrast, combating negative PTP with positive PTP in a timely fashion may not only reduce or eliminate the negative PTP bias, but could result in a pro-defense/acquittal bias.

In another recent study, entitled “Pretrial publicity and juror age affect mock-juror decision making,” psychology researchers investigated how age affects jurors’ biases drawn from media coverage of criminal proceedings. Researchers drew subjects from two age groups, college-age subjects ages 18 to 21 and senior citizens ages 60 to 80. There were 78 subjects in the younger group and 76 in the older group.

In the first day, groups of 12 came in, filled out juror questionnaires, read a series of pretrial media stories with both pro- and anti-defendant angles and then recorded what they could remember from each story and their emotional reaction to those stories. A week after this first meeting, the group of mock jurors returned to fill out another survey about their reactions to the pretrial publicity. The group then viewed a 30-minute videotape of an actual recorded trial proceeding and deliberated until they rendered a verdict.

Researchers found that the effect of pretrial publicity varies based on jurors’ ages. Strangely, stories with one clear anti- or pro-defendant position greatly affected mock jurors of one age group, but did not at all affect jurors of the other age group. Positive, pro-defendant pretrial news stories only affected older mock jurors’ biases, while negative, anti-defendant pretrial stories had an effect on only the younger group of mock jurors. The researchers noted that, in prior studies, negative pretrial publicity impacted mock jurors of all ages, so the finding of an effect only on the young group was surprising.

In the Discussion section, the researchers suggested a reason why negative pretrial publicity affected the young mock jurors:

It is interesting that older and younger jurors who were exposed to P-PTP [pro-defendant pretrial publicity] did not significantly differ on guilt ratings, verdicts, or emotional responses to PTP; whereas older and younger jurors exposed to N-PTP did significantly differ. These findings are consistent with Kisley et al.’s (2007) findings that responding to positive stimuli is relatively age invariant across most of the lifespan, while responding to negative stimuli gradually decreases over the lifespan. Kisley and associates suggest that the positivity effect is due to a decrease in processing of negative stimuli rather than an increase in processing of positive stimuli. Therefore, the age-related differences in the effect of PTP on verdicts may be due to older jurors’ decreased processing of negative case information (PTP) compared to younger jurors.

In a juror’s real-world experience, there are many factors that can affect the biases he brings with him to trial. Location and socioeconomic status determine whether a potential even has access to pretrial publicity – wealthier jurors have better means of purchasing televisions and paying a cable bill each month, for instance. Other factors, such as prior exposure to crime and the juror’s and defendant’s races, also shape a juror’s decision on a verdict independent of any exposure to pre- and mid-trial publicity.

The effects of publicity on juror bias as a research topic has a decent history, with studies dating to the ’80s and ’90s. Even in a field highly focused on concrete results from quantifiable data, the topic still continues to stir interest in further research.