January 4, 2008
MediaConvictions.com: The Mistrial Before the Trial
Project by Jihad Beuchman
MediaConvictions.com is a website designed to explore the issue of professional athletes being prematurely convicted in the media when they are initially accused of crimes. The website claims that these athletes are unfairly subjected to numerous consequences, including suspension from professional sports, reduction in endorsement revenue, and a loss of credibility in the public arena. Instead, the creator of the website argues that athletes should be considered innocent until proven guilty, and treated accordingly. The website explores the issue by providing the narratives of several professional athlete's encounters with accusations of wrongdoing. The author uses these stories to highlight the way that the media and the court of public opinion shape the general perception of these athletes, long before the accusations against them are adjudicated. This critique analyzes the content, structure, and level of persuasiveness of this contention from the perspective of empathic argument. Though there are some strong elements to the website, this effort ultimately fails to succeed on these criteria. This judgment is based on an analysis of the formulation of the core argument, the content used to support these arguments, and the project's overall success in using empathic argument to engage opposing points of view and create a convincing product.
The stated purpose of this project was to select a cause or issue that was important to the author and to utilize technologies that exist in cyberspace to advocate or educate the public on the topic using the method known as empathic argument. The issue of professional athletes being crucified in the public media long before they are convicted in a court of law is a topic that is rife with issues worthy of discussion. Undertones of racial prejudice, economic factors, and latent stereotypes are deeply embedded in the controversy, but unfortunately, this project does not engage these fascinating aspects of the issue. Instead, the overall argument being made seems to be that media treatment of athletes is an issue that warrants further discussion and may be unfair. Despite this excellent starting point, there does not seem to be a clear position being advocated. Rather, the website purports to: â.. provide an alternative medium to receive facts regarding professional athletes in trouble with the law and support those individuals during their tough times.â
The website does identify a number of troubling issues related to the topic, including the circumvention of the constitutional protections of due process, the potentially massive loss of revenue due to negative publicity, and a purported bias in the media against professional athletes. These issues are touched upon on the homepage and general description of the project's purpose, but there is lack of further expansion on these issues, aside from their appearance in various narratives of specific incidents. The project would have benefited from a section which explored the mechanics of each of these issues in depth. First of all, the passing reference to constitutional protections may ring some bells with those familiar with the law, but for the general public using the website, a more detailed explanation would be helpful and give the reader an opportunity to engage with the argument. Instead, it is mentioned briefly, but the concept of due process is not explained in a satisfactory manner. In terms of the loss of revenue or endorsements related to the issue, there are several pieces of anecdotal evidence, but there is once again a lack of depth in the analysis. A discussion of compensation structure for professional athletes, or an explanation of how standard endorsement or player contracts are structured would have made it easier to understand the impact of negative publicity.
The third implicit issue brought up by the project is a particular enthusiasm or bias in the media which leads them to portray professional athletes in a particularly harsh light. As before, there are numerous pieces of anecdotal evidence to this effect, but there is no analysis of how this treatment compares to the media treatment of normal individuals or other types of public figures. The site fails to contain evidence or compelling arguments that professional athletes are somehow more vulnerable to this type of media attack. The website gives lip service to key issues, then avoids them by providing lists of brief anecdotal narratives that purport to demonstrate these biases, but in the end fails to do so due to a lack of depth in analysis or detail.
The anecdotal evidence discussed above forms the bulk of the website, so an analysis of it is in order. There was an expectation that the âHistorical Perspectiveâ section of the website would provide a greater explanation of how these issues have evolved in past cases, but instead this section consisted of three short narratives that provided mixed messages. The summary of the Ray Lewis, Duke Lacrosse, and Marion Jones controversies are clearly goldmines in terms of examining the role the media plays in judging athletes, but the project does not capitalize on these opportunities. Instead, there is a minimal and dispassionate discussion of each case and the reader is left to generate their own conclusions. These anecdotes are more informative than persuasive.
The bulk of the remainder of the website is dedicated to summaries of âThe Affectedâ, athletes that are currently or recently were embroiled in public scandal related to potential criminal charges. These narratives fall prey to the same issues demonstrated by the background information discussed above. They serve as general summaries from which readers can take what they will, though there are some welcome attempts to inject a perspective on the events. For example, in the description of the Barry Bonds scandal, the author argues that: âWithout complete information regarding the circumstance of Bonds' testimony and alleged use of human growth hormones, calls for an asterisk to be placed on Bonds' home run records are premature.â This presents an issue which is fertile ground for a more in-depth and convincing analysis of why the media and the public have been so unified in their condemnation of Barry Bonds prior to any convictions or admission of guilt. Unfortunately, the project fails to explore this possibility, instead it once again leaves readers to draw their own conclusions.
This presentation style, which attempts to provide unbiased evidence related to the cases and point out key issues without attempting to convince the reader one way or the other can be very useful and effective for spurring discussion. Nonetheless, the purpose of this project was significantly different. Thus the effort must be judged in terms of effective advocacy of a certain viewpoint through the method of empathic argument.
One of the key steps in empathic argument is to demonstrate a thorough understanding of your subject's point of view. In this case, though it is not explicitly defined, a fair assumption is that the subject of these arguments are those who feel that the treatment of athletes by the court of public opinion, as expressed by the media, is fair and effective. In order to successfully utilize empathic technique, one would expect the project to convey a clear understanding of the root causes of this perspective. By communicating and evincing an understanding of the alternative point of view, an effective argument against that conclusion can be mounted from a point of common understanding.
This project does make some reference to the alternative point of view, briefly mentioning that highly paid athletes do not generally garner feelings of sympathy. Other than this limited concession, the website fails to explicitly explore why the media, and the general public in turn, are so quick to condemn professional athletes.
The empathic argument would have greatly benefited from a genuine effort to get inside the heads of individuals, critics, or members of the media who find the current media approach fair or reasonable. Instead, the project dismisses this point of view as implicitly dangerous and wrongheaded, running the risk of alienating those who disagree rather than building common ground in preparation for a convincing argument to the contrary.
Perhaps intentionally, the anecdotal evidence presented on the site often seems to confirm that the initial judgment of the media was accurate, including descriptions of several cases where the athletes ultimately admitted some guilt. The issue is that this evidence, which could be utilized to create empathy with the subject, is merely summarized without any admission that perhaps a premature assumption of guilt may be a reasonable reaction in some cases.
Due to the fact that the project fails to describe or explore the opposing side's viewpoint, which is crucial to a successful empathic argument, it ultimately fails to make a convincing argument to all but the most ardent critics of media treatment of athletes. Even a reader initially quite sympathetic to the issue could come away from the website confused as to whether the treatment of the athletes was too early or ultimately fair. The topic is very interesting and the website does provide a wealth of different player narratives that cover the span of outcomes, from complete vindication to ultimate admission of guilt. What is lacking is a manageable structure for this evidence, coupled with a lack of in-depth analysis of why these stories should provoke outrage. In its current form, the project fails to effectively use empathic argument to convince readers that current norms in terms of media coverage or public reaction should be challenged, but there is great potential for improvement.
As the project continues to develop, it would benefit greatly from a section devoted to the rationale behind the current approach, a more nuanced discussion of the various cases explicitly identifying the issues raised by each, and finally a section which conveys a detailed argument for a change in approach based in a common understanding of the current situation and possible alternatives.
Note: A conscious decision was made to refrain from discussing issues of style, grammar, or proofreading in the general analysis of this project, instead focusing on the site from the perspective of empathic argument. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to briefly discuss these issues as they do affect the overall effectiveness of the project. None of us can hope to escape the occasional error in proofreading, and this website is clearly a work in progress.. Nevertheless, throughout the website the clarity and flow of the arguments are damaged by a lack of careful editing. Considering the relatively limited amount of content, there are far too many basic spelling and grammar errors that should have been corrected in the editing process. There are also issues with the style which can confuse the reader and thus reduce their engagement with the argument. These superficial issues reduce the credibility of the source, weakening the effectiveness of the overall argument and should have been corrected earlier. This comment is not meant to make light of these errors or embarrass the author, but these issues exist throughout the website and seem to reflect a lack of effort or thorough editing in the creation of the website, rather than any lack of ability to avoid these issues by the author.