Guilty Until Proven Innocent? The Media’s ’50 Shades of Grey’ Indictment Proves False

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Media outlets have used the mugshot of a 19 year old University of Illinois – Chicago biology student in an alleged rape case that has drawn international headlines and comparisons to the popular novel (and now movie) 50 Shades of Grey. The pop culture reference was due to the apparent use of human bondage in the Chicago-area case.

It was the perfect sensationalized story to catch the attention of audiences. The link to the fictional book was so alluring that it succeeded in drawing coverage from hundreds of media sources from around the world including outlets in Australia, Canada, China and the United Kingdom. The same Cook County Jail mugshot of the 19 year old young man accompanied most of these articles.

But the defendant, Mohammad Hossain, is innocent.

A Cook County judge today dismissed the rape charges due to a lack of evidence. The case did not even proceed to a trial.

This particular case — and others like it — raise important questions about our judicial system and how it is covered in the media.

The media is quick to presume guilt. There is a self-interested motive to do so. It is far better for TV ratings and newspaper sales to portray a scary villain guilty of a heinous act than it is to report facts.

Does this presumption of guilt serve anyone well — other than the ratings-craved media?

Certainly not a defendant — who must forever carry the burden of being labeled guilty of horrific crimes, even if they are found to be innocent.

Nor is the public served well. It undermines the bedrock belief that a defendant deserves due process — a constitutional right that has steadily been eroded. And it makes achieving a fair trial with an impartial jury a taller task should it reach that stage in the legal process.

The historical indifference of a male-dominated society toward female sexual assault cases should not go unobserved in this post. That history is very real and must be addressed through rigorous criminal investigations, as well as institutional reforms to ensure that they take rape cases seriously.

But that should not mean a casual use of mug shots — particularly for young defendants — or worse, an outright presumption of guilt for the accused. We as a society must both vigorously protect sexual assault victims and preserve the rights of defendants.

I have struggled personally with this issue. You see, while South Bend Voice has not covered criminal cases very frequently in the past, we have used mug shots in a handful of stories. In one of those stories, we consciously decided against running a mug shot since the defendant was a minor. The logic, though, should be extended to adults since the long-term consequences are just as severe.

To that end, the practice of using mug shots on South Bend Voice will end today as it creates an indelible visual link to an event that cannot be washed away, even if the defendant is innocent.

If a defendant is found guilty in a court of law, they should own the crime; but until then, the news media should let them have their day in court.

Image Credit: Sam Howzit, flickr

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