The trial of Casey Anthony, the 25-year-old charged with murdering her toddler daughter, has attracted a huge amount of media attention, with more than 600 press credentials requested. While the 24/7 broadcasting of the trial focuses on every minute fact in the case, the coverage sometimes veers to Anthony’s appearance.
(See live coverage of the trial here.)
Newspapers post pictures of a scantily clad and dancing Anthony next to stories about her daughter’s murder. Nancy Grace dubbed her “Tot Mom.” One newscaster even referred to her “boobs” on air. This over-the-top coverage of Anthony’s looks makes it seem like she’s facing two trials: one in a courtroom, the other in the media.
This reaction is not wholly unusual in a woman’s trial. “Had the Salem witch trials been televised, I’m sure [the media] would have been talking about how seductive and satanic they looked,” Michele Weldon, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, said in a phone interview. Weldon, who runs a blog about women in the media, Every Woman News, adds “the damnation of women by dress code is not new.”
Last Tuesday, “In Session” anchor Vinnie Politan discussed the “clingy” shirt Anthony wore to court, giving his opinion about it on Twitter: “Casey Anthony wearing a plum colored low cut shirt. Thus continuing strange wardrobe selection for death penalty case.”
Her defense attorney had asked her to wear the shirt to show that her slim figure wouldn’t hide a pregnancy. The prosecution contends Anthony hid her pregnancy of Caylee until she was seven months along, as evidence that she kept secrets.
As Anthony’s defense attorney asked her to stand up on live television, Politan, who apparently didn’t know his mic was live, said, “The only thing you are going to see are her boobs sticking out.” When this caught-on-camera comment was pointed out on Twitter, Politan didn’t apologize, only saying her “bizarre wardrobe” choice made sense in the context of the day’s events.
Sarah Projansky, an associate professor in the Departments of Gender and Women’s Studies and of Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said discussion of Anthony’s appearance is not relevant, but an expected part of the coverage of a high-profile woman. She also says part of the reason the case is getting so much attention stems from her being a female.
“If Anthony were a man, not only would we likely not be hearing about his appearance, we would likely not know of him at all,” Projansky said, adding that most children are killed by male family members.
A major part of the prosecution’s case against Anthony is her behavior after her daughter died, with photos of Anthony at clubs being entered as evidence and testimony by her former boyfriend and his roommates describing Anthony as a “party girl.” People magazine used the term to critique her courtroom appearance or “transformation from party girl to murder defendant.” The Daily Mail has included the same “racy” or “sexy” pictures of Anthony in stories that have nothing to do with her appearance. (Here, here and here, for example.)
Nancy Grace has been a severe critic of Anthony, referring to her as “Tot Mom,” a nickname Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh used as the title of a play about the case written based on transcripts from her show.
Though Grace is not considered a journalist, she is regularly interviewed by anchors on HLN’s sister network, CNN. To “Good Morning America,” she described Anthony as “very pale and pitiful,” adding that she looked like a “snake charmer.” On her own show, she described Anthony on her first day in court “looking pitiful, all pale and frail with her hair back in a ponytail like a schoolteacher or a cheerleader.”
“I thought, you know what, somebody on this jury is going to fall for this and someone is going to vote for an acquittal or at least a lesser,” she concluded. Grace has been criticized for her brand of commentary, with New York Times media writer David Carr writing that she “races toward judgment, heedlessly ignoring nuance and evidence on her way to finding guilt.”
Though the 20 jurors — 12 regulars and eight alternates — have been sequestered for the duration of a trial, living at a hotel with restrictions on what they can read and watch, smart phones and other technology make it possible for coverage of the case to reach the men and women who will decide Anthony’s fate.
This type of coverage, which Weldon said “incites all kinds of perceptions and judgements and opinions that really aren’t all that helpful,” could end up swaying their opinion. And with an outcome as serious as the death penalty on the table, “ponytails” and “boobs” seem especially unimportant.