CREDIBILITY AND PERCEPTIONS OF NETWORK TELEVISION NEWS COVERAGE OF
THE O.J. SIMPSON TRIAL
Patrick J. Sutherland
Judy D. Johnston
1 Pine Lake Drive
Albany, Ohio 45710
Phone: (614) 593-2587
E Mail: [log in to unmask]
The authors of this paper gratefully acknowledge the assistance of
Dr. Guido H. Stempel III,
Distinguished Professor, E.W. Scripps School of Journalism,
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Credibility and Perceptions of Network Television News Coverage
of the O.J. Simpson Trial
Television news coverage of the O.J. Simpson double murder trial in
Los Angeles has been both heavily criticized and hailed. Former journalist
Marvin Kalb, of Harvard University, stated that coverage of the Simpson case,
"trivializes real news." (Sharkey, 1994, p. 20) ABC News Senior Vice President
Richard Wald, however, stated that covering topics of interest to people is at
the heart of "the business of mass daily journalism."
Few communication studies have been published on the perceptions
and effects of real courtroom drama in U.S. homes via network television. The
Simpson trial indicates "...television becomes a kind of control center for
decisions about news," Everette Dennis of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center
stated. (Sharkey, 1994, p. 20) An important question is whether news should be
viewed strictly as a commodity. Answers to such questions might affect future TV
news coverage of celebrity or high profile trials. An ironic twist concerning
the general public is that survey results show there was overall dissatisfaction
with the media coverage of the Simpson trial. (Sharkey, 1994) Yet, CNN and other
electronic news operations reported heavy viewership of their daily trial
coverage. The general public apparently does not understand that, on network TV
news and from other TV sources, it saw a socially constructed view of the trial,
not the trial itself.
Drucker (1989) did a case study examining components of
face-to-face trials compared with what she termed televised mediated trials.
"Ultimately, we suggest here that televised trials constitute a distinct
genreDthe televised mediated trialDpossessing unique substantive and stylistic
features which can be distinguished from other kinds of trials and other types
of televised programming." (Drucker, 1989, p. 305) Drucker stated that
television redefines the legal process in terms of mass understanding. She wrote
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televised mediated trials blurred the distinction between news
coverage of the legal system and entertainment. Drucker wrote that televised
mediated trials had two main purposes. The
first purpose of such trials was to educate the general public about
the U.S. legal system. The second main purpose was to provide entertainment.
One of O.J. Simpson's attorneys, Robert Shapiro, wrote "The
television media, either consciously or unconsciously, create an atmosphere of
chaos." (Shapiro, 1994, p. 28) The major U.S. TV networks devoted a total of 26
hours and 50 minutes to the Simpson trial in 1995, making it the top story of
the year in terms of time devoted to a story, according to the October 16, 1995
edition of U.S. News and World Report . By comparison, the war in Bosnia
garnered just over 13 hours of network news coverage, and the Oklahoma City
bombing story just under 9 hours of coverage, as of October 1995. The news
coverage of the so called "trial of the century" presents many potential
research questions for those studying the media.
As for the effects of the Simpson trial on TV and other news
coverage, USA Today reported on October 4, 1995, that an average of 2.3 million
households tuned in to the Simpson trial on CNN every weekday from noon to 8
p.m. Eastern Time in the 36 weeks of the trial. In 1994, during the same period,
CNN only averaged 470,000 households. NBC and CBS did not offer live daytime
coverage and as a result lost both viewers and revenue. NBC lost approximately
two million viewers and CBS had to repay tens of millions of dollars because it
could not deliver viewers to advertisers.
The power of televised mediated trials to inform and entertain has
been restricted because of laws prohibiting cameras in courtrooms. The American
Bar Association, in 1952, called for courts in the United States to bar
television cameras from legal proceedings. (Kaufmann, 1992) By the late 1960s,
47 states had issued such bans in keeping with the ABA judicial cannons. Several
states in the 1970s began to experiment
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with cameras in the courtroom, and by 1981, they numbered 20. A
Sixth Amendment related decision by the United States Supreme Court (Chandler
v. Florida, 1981) allowed states to continue experimenting. (Drucker, 1989)
Nelson, Teeter and LeDuc (1989) stated
that by 1981, 12 states had permanent arrangements for allowing
cameras in trial courtrooms and 15 had ongoing experiments. In 1990, the ABA
dropped its objections to cameras in the courtroom. (Kaufmann, 1992) By the
mid-1990's, only four states continued to ban cameras in the courtrooms.
In regards to the Simpson trial, this paper will examine the
coverage offered by the network evening news programs compared to the public's
perceptions of the trial coverage. It will also answer the question of which
medium the public perceived to have provided the most credible coverage of the
In their study titled "Some Correlates of Media Credibility,"
Westley and Severin
Analysis of the reasons given for preferring one of the media in
the case of
conflicting reports, and an analysis of the relationship between
use of the media
and believability, together suggest that newspapers gain in a
direct contrast with
television because they are perceived both to be right more often
and to be
wrong more often. (p.34)
Carter and Greenberg (1965) conducted research on the relationship
between media use and credibility. In a telephone interview study of some 500
adults in San Jose, California, the researchers found that there was a
significant relationship between the media a person uses and the credibility the
person assigns to those media. In the case of conflicting news reports, the
relationship was much stronger. Shaw (1973) found a correlation between media
use and credibility in a questionnaire study of some 650 students
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conducted at a midwestern university. In a national telephone survey
of 1600 adults measuring the concept of credibility conducted by Gaziano and
McGrath (1987), the
researchers concluded that the credibility of television news
increases as the focus moves from local, to state, to national, to
Newhagen and Nass (1989) conducted a national combined telephone
interview and questionnaire study concerning the use of different criteria for
evaluating the credibility of
newspapers and TV news. The researchers noted that as of 1989, TV
news had for three decades continually out-scored newspaper credibility.
Newhagen and Nass defined credibility from a receiver-oriented perspective as,
"credibility is the degree to which an
individual judges his or her perceptions to be a valid reflection of
reality." (p. 278) The researchers defined mass media credibility as the
perception of news messages as a plausible reflection of the events they depict.
The researchers concluded:
This article suggests that many respondents base their perception
or confidence in a newspaper on its performance as an institution,
base their perception of credibility on the standards and
television news on the performance of an aggregate of on-camera
Which medium Americans get most of their news from no longer seems
to be a relevant question. Stempel (1991) wrote that the answer depends on the
type of news being sought. A national telephone survey of 501 respondents was
conducted concerning sources of news. The findings refuted a long standing
assumption held by many that the general public gets its news primarily from
television. "This study makes it abundantly clear that most people don't get
most of their news from television. They do use television for the three types
of national news included in this study, but clearly, it is newspapers they turn
to for local news." (Stempel, p. 8)
DeFleur, Davenport, Cronin, and DeFleur (1992) examined sources of
news in an experimental study limited to college students. DeFleur et al.
studied audience recall of news stories, which were artificially generated, and
presented in the formats of
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newspapers, computers, television and radio. DeFleur et al., stated
that previous studies had yielded inconsistent findings concerning which medium
serves audiences best as a
source for learning. Some 480 students participated in experiments
in the DeFleur et al. study. The findings were clear in that newspaper
presentations were remembered best. DeFleur et al., however, acknowledged that
their study was not generalizable to the general population. Nevertheless,
DeFleur et al. (1992) stated "That is, TV has clearly become the most popular
source for exposure to news stories, while research shows that such content is
not well remembered." (DeFleur et al., p. 1022)
In a study on patterns of recall among television news viewers,
Neuman (1976) stated that, in sharp contrast with print media, television news
viewing is not correlated with education. Neuman suggested that TV may be a
"knowledge-leveler" between the better and less educated segments of the
McDonald (1990) studied the connection between media orientation
and television news viewing. McDonald surveyed 364 households in a small
Northeastern city. McDonald wrote that "It is somewhat surprising that
television news orientation is as medium-specific as it appears to be. Contrary
to expectation, orientation was unrelated to newspaper exposure." (McDonald, p.
There have been several other studies conducted concerning recall
of and learning from TV news such as Housel (1984) and Wicks and Drew (1991).
Few recent studies, however, have looked at both recall and credibility of
newspaper readership and television news viewing.
Statement of Hypotheses
A total of six hypotheses were developed concerning adults'
perceptions of the Simpson trial coverage.
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Hypothesis #1: Major U.S. television network evening news reports
of the O.J. Simpson murder trial concentrated less on legal procedures happening
inside the courtroom than on events happening outside the courtroom.
Hypothesis #2: Major U.S. television network evening news reporters
relied heavily on paid outside experts (or consultants) to provide analysis or
explain legal proceedings and consequences concerning events in the O.J. Simpson
Hypothesis #3: Major U.S. television network evening news coverage
of the O.J. Simpson trial participants focused more on personality traits and
appearances rather than upon the legal roles and activities of the participants.
Hypothesis #4: Most survey respondents will confirm that newspaper
coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial was deemed more credible when compared with
other media sources of news.
Hypothesis #5: Most survey respondents will agree that major TV
network evening news coverage of the Simpson trial concentrated less on legal
procedures happening inside the courtroom than on events happenings outside the
Hypothesis #6: Most respondents will agree that major TV network
evening news coverage of the Simpson trial focused more heavily on personality
traits and appearances rather than upon the legal roles and activities of the
The research for this paper included a content analysis of a total
of 60 network TV newscasts, which included 71 stories, and a national survey of
Content Analysis Methodology
The content analysis consisted of four constructed weeks (Monday
through Friday) following the method discussed by Ohio University Professor
Daniel Riffe et al. (In Press) of the network evening news programs for, ABC,
CBS, and NBC from January through
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September 1995. These dates represented the actual trial coverage of
the Simpson trial. Pre-trial and post-trial coverage was not included in this
study. Specifically, the network news programs were: ABC World News with Peter
Jennings, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News.
The source for the news transcripts for ABC was the Broadcast News
CD-ROM produced by Research Publications International. CBS and NBC News
transcripts on CD-ROM were produced by the UMI Company. The Vanderbilt
Television News Index was consulted via Searchnet to verify the number of
Simpson stories per network.
The content analysis portion of this study revolved around three
hypotheses. The analysis compared mentions of legal events inside the courtroom
versus mentions of Simpson related events happening outside the courtroom (H 1),
anchor or correspondent self contained reports versus reports containing
interpretation or commentary by outside legal consultants (H 2), and showings or
comments about main trial participants' personalities or appearances versus
straight reports of legal proceedings involving participants (H 3).
A coding pretest yielded 87% reliability on the above coding
categories between the five coders, who were graduate students in the E.W.
Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. A Chi Square Goodness of Fit
Test was conducted on content analysis results.
Content Analysis Results
Hypothesis #1: This hypothesis was not supported. The hypothesis
stated: Major U.S. television network evening news reports of the O.J. Simpson
murder trial concentrated less on legal procedures happening inside the
courtroom than on events happening outside the courtroom. See Table 1 below:
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Reports on Events Inside the Courtroom vs. Reports on Events Outside
the Courtroom by the Three Television Network Newscasts
# of Reports Percentage
Events Inside Courtroom 54 76%
Events Outside Courtroom 5 7%
Events Both In and Outside 12 17%
Total 71 100%
x = 59.37, df = 2, p < .01
Hypothesis #2: This hypothesis was not supported. The hypothesis
stated: Major U.S. television network evening news reporters relied heavily on
paid outside experts (or consultants) to provide analysis or explain legal
proceedings and consequences concerning events in the O.J. Simpson trial. See
Table 2 below:
Network News Reports Relied on Reporters versus Consultants
# of Reports Percentage
Reporter Only 41 58%
Consultant Report 15 21%
Reporter & Consultant 15 21%
Total 71 100%
x = 19.05, df = 2, p < .01
Hypothesis #3: This hypothesis was not supported. The hypothesis
stated: Major U.S. television network evening news coverage of the O.J. Simpson
trial participants focused more on personality traits and appearances rather
than upon the legal roles and activities of the participants. See Table 3 below:
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Network News Reports Focused on Personality Traits or Legal
Activities of Participants
# of Reports Percentage
Participants' Appearance 6 8.5%
Legal Roles/Activities 59 83.0%
Both appearance/legal roles 6 8.5%
Total 71 100%
x = 79.15, df = 2, p < .01
To restate, contrary to expectations, the content analysis found
that network evening news coverage of the Simpson trial concentrated on events
inside the courtroom, relied on their own reporters, and focused on the legal
roles of the participants.
In January and February of 1996, a national telephone survey of
1005 randomly selected adults was conducted by the Bush Research Center at the
E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University in conjunction with the
Scripps-Howard News Service. The sample was drawn randomly by computer. The
first step was to draw a zip code randomly. The matching telephone area code
then was selected. An existing exchange in that area code was drawn randomly. A
random four digit number was added to that exchange. A respondent was selected
randomly at the designated number by the interviewer asking for the adult in
that household who would next celebrate a birthday. The questionnaire contained
approximately 50 questions on various topics. Three of the questions on the
survey pertained to media coverage of the Simpson trial.
Respondents were asked to name the medium which they thought
provided the most credible coverage of the trial. The exact wording of the
question was, "Please think back to the murder trial of O.J. Simpson. In
general, which was the most believable in its
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coverage of that trial--newspapers, magazines, radio news or
television news?" Respondents were then asked two questions concerning network
TV news coverage of the trial. One question asked, "Did network evening newscast
coverage of the Simpson trial concentrate more on the trial and events in the
courtroom, or on events outside the courtroom?" The other question was, "Did
network evening newscast coverage of the Simpson trial focus more on
personalities, or more on the legal issues?"
Standard error of proportion calculations were performed on the
tables below relating to hypotheses #s 4-6.
Hypothesis #4: This hypothesis was not supported. The hypothesis
stated: Most survey respondents will confirm that newspaper coverage of the O.J.
Simpson trial was deemed more credible when compared with other media sources of
news. Most of the respondents thought that television news provided the most
believable coverage of the Simpson trial. See Table 4 below:
The Medium, In General, Which Provided The Most Believable Coverage
of the Trial
Medium # of Responses Percentage
Newspapers 124 12.3%
Magazines 28 2.8%
Radio 49 4.9%
Television 475 47.3%
None 147 14.6%
Uncertain 128 12.7%
Other response 51 5.1%
Not Ascertained 3 .3%
Total 1005 100%
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Using standard error of proportion, all differences between
newspaper and other media are significant at the .01 level and all differences
between TV and other media are significant at the .001 level.
Hypothesis #5: This hypothesis was not supported. The hypothesis
stated: Most survey respondents will agree that major TV network evening news
coverage of the Simpson trial concentrated less on legal procedures happening
inside the courtroom than on events happenings outside the courtroom. As shown
in Table 5, respondents said the coverage focused on legal proceedings inside
TV Coverage Focused on Events Inside Courtroom or Outside The
# of Responses Percentage
Focus On Events Inside Courtroom 354 35.2%
Focus on Events Outside Courtroom 337 33.5%
Uncertain 198 19.7%
Other Response 112 11.1%
Not Ascertained 4 .4%
Total 1005 100%
Using standard error of proportion, values with the same
superscripts are significantly different at the .01 level.
Hypothesis #6: This hypothesis was supported. The hypothesis
stated: Most respondents will agree that major TV network evening news coverage
of the Simpson trial focused more heavily on personality traits and appearances
rather than upon the legal roles and activities of the participants. See Table
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TV News Coverage Focus on Personality Traits/Appearances or on Legal
# of Responses Percentage
Focus On Personality Traits and/or ab
Appearances 581 57.8%
Focus on Legal Roles/Activities 170 16.9%
Uncertain 171 17.0%
Other Response 78 7.8%
Not Ascertained 5 .5%
Total 1005 100%
Using standard error of proportion, values with the same
superscripts are significantly different at the .001 level.
Survey Cross Tabulations
Cross tabulations in the Scripps-Howard/Ohio University national
survey showed that the findings were significant across different ages and
incomes. All age demographics believed that television provided the most
credible coverage of the Simpson trial. Though differences were significant at
the .05 level for all age demographics, persons between ages 18 and 24 were much
more likely than those 25 and older to say TV news was more credible. See Table
Newspaper versus Television News Credibility in the Simpson Trial By
(Figures Below Are Percentages)
Medium 18-24 25-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65+
Newspapers 13% 12% 13% 12% 13% 11%
Television 69% 49% 47% 45% 41% 39%
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Table 8 shows that credibility of the Simpson trial coverage
decreased as income levels increased. The gap between television and newspaper
credibility was significant at the .001 level for all income groups except 60K+,
where the difference was significant at the .05 level. Those with higher incomes
were less likely to consider TV news as more credible.
Newspaper versus Television News Credibility in the Simpson Trial by
(Figures Below Are Percentages)
Income Level < 10K 10-25K 25-40K 40-60K >
60K Newspapers 11% 10% 10% 13% 20%
Television 67% 57% 48% 43% 36%
Cross tabulations also show that adults in all age demographics
said the Simpson trial TV news coverage focused more on personalities'
appearances and characteristics than on legal roles and issues as shown in Table
TV News in Simpson Trial Focus More on Personalities'
Characteristics or Legal Issues
Focus 18-24 25-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65+ Personalities 13% 12% 13% 12% 13% 22
Legal Issues 69% 49% 47% 45% 41% 35%
Differences were significant at the .001 level for all age groups.
Again, persons between the ages of 18 to 24 were much more likely to state that
TV news focused more on legal issues than on personalities' characteristics.
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The findings of this study did not support one of the conclusions
of the Westley and Severin (1964) study on media credibility in that newspaper
coverage of the Simpson trial was not seen as more credible than TV news
coverage. This study did support Gaziano and McGrath's (1987), and Newhagen and
Nass' (1989) findings that TV news is deemed more credible on the national
level. This study also supported Stempel's (1991) research which concluded that
most Americans utilize television for national news stories. The findings
indicate that adults who are older and who earn more income found network TV
news to be less credible concerning Simpson trial coverage.
The Simpson trial coverage was unusual in that it was a state
murder trial covered heavily by national and international news media. Most
state murder trials do not receive such intensive media scrutiny, and federal
cases would not receive the same television coverage because of laws prohibiting
cameras in the courtrooms. In March of 1996, the U.S. Judicial Conference
recommended that judges in civil cases at the federal level be allowed to decide
whether to allow cameras in the courtroom on a case by case basis. Despite a
1947 proclamation by the U.S. Supreme Court that a trial in court "is a public
event" (Denniston, 1994), the ban on cameras in federal criminal courts remains
This study supports Drucker's (1989) finding that televised
mediated trials tend to blur the distinction between news coverage and
entertainment. The content analysis showed the network TV news coverage of the
Simpson trial focused primarily on the legal events. However, the Scripps-Howard
survey respondents' perceived it to focus more on personalities.
TV news viewers' perceptions may also be changing because of the
combination of facts and informed opinions in news broadcasts. As noted on Table
1 in the content analysis, 17% of the reports contained both a reporter and
consultant. Did this combination prevent the public from distinguishing between
the reporter's facts and the consultant's
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educated opinion? The combination of consultants and reporters in TV
network news coverage of the trial also brings up the question of "why?" Are the
networks using consultants because they want to provide additional information,
or are they losing faith in their reporters' abilities to provide all the
relevant information in a story?
Implications and Further Research
The results of this content analysisDshowing that the major TV
networks, in fact, were careful to keep most of their news reports focused on
legal events and not on personalitiesDmay surprise TV news critics, the viewers,
and perhaps some electronic journalists themselves. CBS News Anchorman Dan
Rather, for example, told a CNN interviewer (King, 1996) that the major TV
networks' news coverage of the Simpson trial could have been a lot better. The
question remains, why did adults perceive that TV news focused more on the
entertainment aspects of the Simpson trial? Has the influence of
tabloid TV journalism grown to such an extent that the mass
television audience can no longer differentiate between serious reporting and
gossip? As Ehrlich (1996) stated:
Both investigative and tabloid journalists tell morally outraged
stories of right and wrong, but only investigative journalists
really "mean it." With a smirk and a wink, tabloid reporters
dissociate themselves from the stories they tell, as if to remind
the viewer that it is all just a diversion, a show for one's
amusement, outrageousness merely for the sake of
outrageousness. (Ehrlich, p. 17)
Ettema and Glasser (1994) question whether contemporary TV viewers
the difference. This seems to be an area for future study. Perhaps
the respondents to the Scripps-Howard survey could not distinguish between the
network evening news, live TV coverage, and tabloid TV coverage of the trial. As
tabloid journalism continues to creep into mainstream TV viewers' consciousness,
people's perceptions of the differentiation between news and entertainment may
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This study's findings demonstrate the paradox that while adults may
find TV news more credible than other media during coverage of national events
such as the Simpson trial, in fact, the TV viewers' perceptions of coverage in
such cases may be inaccurate. This leads to the question of whether TV network
owners and executives, including news executives, understand the confusion and
possible negative consequences that their ratings based decisions seem to be
creating among viewers of such celebrity trials.
Further study is needed along the line of Drucker's (1989) research
on the results of face-to-face versus televised mediated trials and on TV news
coverage of celebrity based events. Also, further research into national news
coverage of celebrity trials might focus more specifically on what the public
recalls and on what they learn from various media.
Limitations of this study include not involving cable network
newscasts, such as CNN's, in the analysis. There was a time lag of four months
between the end of the Simpson trial and the survey. Also, no comparison of
content was made between newspaper stories on the Simpson trial and TV network
newscast coverage, or between network evening newscasts and newscasts during
other times of the day.
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Credibility and Perceptions of Network Television News
Coverage of the O.J. Simpson Trial
This study examines adults' perceptions of media credibility in the
coverage of the Simpson murder trial. The research concentrates on television
network news coverage through a content analysis of newscasts and through a
national survey. The study explores coverage of legal procedures inside the
courtroom and personalities' characteristics and appearances. Over 80% of trial
coverage focused on legal roles as opposed to participants' characteristics or
appearances. Nearly 60% of the respondents perceived that coverage concentrated