Will the ‘Trial of the 21st Century’ Be as Popular as the 20th’s?

Photo by Claire Anderson on Unsplash

By Nick Frost, Executive Editor

“Down there on the ground is a white Ford Bronco,” Peter Jennings reported as, seemingly, the entire country tuned in to watch one of the slowest car chases to receive nationwide coverage.[1]  From the early moments of the O.J. Simpson case, people across the nation have been captivated by even the smallest details about it.  This monumental focus on one case posits several questions: Why do other cases not get more coverage? Will any other reach the level of popularity and newsworthiness achieved by O.J. Simpson’s? And why has it become so popular that it is considered a “Trial of the Century?”[2]

According to the Evangelical Press Association, there are eight qualities that make something newsworthy: prominence, proximity, impact, human interest, timeliness, currency (material currently on the public agenda), conflict, and unusualness (or the bizarre).[3] These qualities are universal because they are focused on human interest. When comparing Simpson’s case to these qualities, “the O.J. Simpson case hit just about all of these with intensity,” said Duquesne University Professor of Journalism Margaret Patterson.[4] Prof. Patterson went on to explain that there are other theories beyond the eight qualities that make something newsworthy to gauge the popularity of a news story.

One of these other theories is that crime news stories are the public’s “daily workout” with respect to morals and the current state of the world.[5] For Martin Innes, the Director of the Crime and Security Research Institute, the larger crimes comprising the public’s “daily workout” are called signal crimes.[6] Signal crimes become “water cooler talk” where the popularity of topics spread to even wider audiences. These crimes are deemed “signal crimes” because important talking points typically focus on topics bigger than the individual crime.[7]

Patterson agreed that the Simpson case hit these descriptors as well, as it focused on both the racial divide in the country as well as the mistrust of police by the black community.[8] And these two themes remain hot topics in the news today, as shown by the Ferguson, Missouri, protests[9] and the Black Lives Matter movement.[10]

Since these themes remain significant today, it would make sense that the next case of the century could be just as big as Simpson’s — unless there are other variables that get in the way.  One of these variables, according to Prof. Patterson, is the way that people consume the news through social media. This new form of consumption has altered the way traditional news outlets report the news. Prof. Patterson noted, for example, the 2009 video of innocent bystander Neda Agha-Soltan, who was fatally shot in a peaceful demonstration in Iran following a national election.[11] The video of her death went viral on social media, and because of its widespread coverage online, traditional media outlets either showed the video or a still photo taken from it.

“Ethical practice generally avoids showing the very private moment of death,” Prof. Patterson said. “While there are always exceptions based on the public’s need to know, the news media’s decision in this case was definitely influenced by the video’s widespread distribution on social media.”[12]

As Patterson notes, bystander videos continue to make the news, specifically in some of the more known police violence cases.[13]

“While these videos have been tremendously important in pushing an important issue into the public sphere,” she said, “they have also pushed the issue of showing the moment of death, and some are being shown before their content has been verified.”[14]

Additionally, the people involved in cases greatly impact the amount of focus placed on them.[15] Patterson noted that Simpson’s story was propelled by his fame in sports and entertainment; the fame of the victims and defendants involved in the recent #MeToo movement has placed these claims of sexual harassment cases at the public forefront; and interest in shootings such as Sandy Hook is fueled by the age and innocence of the victims involved in those tragedies.[16]

Despite the variables that have made such stories focal points for national news coverage, they do not seem to carry the same lasting focus as Simpson’s case. Take, for instance, how Netflix added a television series dedicated to reenacting the trial in dramatic fashion: The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,[17] or the recently released Fox News interview with Simpson on the program “If I Did It.”[18] There is no equivalent with Simpson’s case, which had a lasting focus on one individual’s trial, and the many different celebrities involved in the #MeToo movement. However, it may be too early to tell if the movement has the longevity of focus that Simpson’s case had. Comparing the viral video of Agha-Soltan’s death with the Simpson coverage shows that the former was not covered with as much detail or for as long of a period as Simpson’s case in the United States. Additionally, two noteworthy factors previously mentioned may play a role in the media coverage difference: the proximity (Simpson’s case being in the United States and Agha-Soltan’s being in Iran) and exclusion of a celebrity focus (Simpson was already a celebrity before the incident, whereas Agha-Soltan became famous after her death).

Try comparing Simpson’s case with other celebrities and their newsworthy crimes. Charlie Sheen, for instance, faced allegations of domestic abuse during the middle of his infamous 2011 run, which featured headlines about drug and alcohol abuse and his bizarre comments in interviews; among his statements were that he was a “warlock” with “tiger blood” and “Adonis DNA,” and that he was “winning.”[19] But the focus in the Sheen drama was more so on the bizarre things he was saying and the rumors of his drug and alcohol consumption — and less of it was paid to his alleged domestic abuse.

The most fitting comparison to Simpson’s case appears to be the Aaron Hernandez case, where Hernandez was convicted of murdering a man while he was a professional football player in the National Football League.[20] All of the newsworthy traits are hit in the same way, except that there was not a focus on police mistrust and racial conflict in the Hernandez case.[21] The case was followed closely while it occurred, but the lasting focus does not appear to be as strong as Simpson’s.[22] Gregory Gordon, law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, noted another stark difference between the two. Though he deemed they had “numerous striking parallels,” the key difference may have been the juries’ different conclusions.[23] Gordon notes that Simpson’s acquittal (along with several other professional football players’ cases) could have played a role in Hernandez’s conviction.[24] Perhaps the “not guilty” verdict for Simpson was part of the reason why his case has persisted for so long.

Or, perhaps, Simpson’s case has remained relevant all of these years because he refuses to leave the public spotlight or criminal justice system — as shown by his conviction in 2008 for kidnapping and armed robbery in Las Vegas.[25] In the 2008 conviction, Simpson claimed that he was merely getting sports memorabilia that had been stolen from him.[26] Nevertheless, the jury convicted him, and despite Judge Jackie Glass prohibiting mention of the 1995 murder case during the trial, CNN reported that it “remained an unspoken undercurrent throughout.”[27] Additionally, the defense attorney for Simpson and the codefendant for the 2008 conviction pointed to the 1995 case as the motivation behind the court finding the two men guilty of the charges placed upon them.[28]

Simpson popped up in the news again when he was released from prison in 2017. Following his release, longtime friend Tom Scotto told ABC News that “[Simpson]’s going to do the same thing he always did.”[29]

There appear to be other reasons why the Simpson case has had a longevity and focus that no other cases have commanded this century: how media was consumed during that time as opposed to today, and how media sources have changed their coverage to increase ratings.

“Broadcasting has become so concerned about ratings and market share that it has largely lost sight of its civic responsibilities,” Prof. Patterson said. “Deregulation of the industry under Reagan is partly to blame. But I would also emphasize that we are the only developed country that does not support its broadcast and cable news media with public funds. That forces all news to rely on market forces and what draws eyes to their programs. Alas, the market does not always produce quality.”[30]

Despite these issues, Prof. Patterson is still convinced that there will be a case in the United States that will get the same attention that Simpson’s received.

“Witness how we have never finished exploring John F. Kennedy’s assassination,” she said. “I am sure other cases will create the same buzz.”[31]


Nicholas Frost is a 2018 J.D. candidate and an executive editor of Juris Magazine. He is also a member of the Corporate Law Society, the Criminal Law Society, and the Sports and Entertainment Law Society.



[1] Peter Jennings, OJ Simpson’s white Bronco chase, ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/video/oj-simpsons-white-bronco-chase-23976837 (last visited Mar. 17, 2018).

[2] Crimesider Staff, Looking back at O.J. Simpson’s ‘Trial of the Century’, CBS News (Feb. 2, 2016, 7:18 PM), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/looking-back-at-o-j-simpsons-trial-of-the-century/.

[3] Journalism 101: What Makes a Story Newsworthy?, Evangelical Press Association, https://www.evangelicalpress.com/jou101/ (last visited Jan 24, 2018).

[4] Interview with Margaret Patterson, Professor of Journalism, Duquesne University McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts Media Department, in Pittsburgh, Pa. (Jan. 2018).

[5] Jack Katz, What makes crime ‘news’?, 9 Media, Culture and Society 47, 67 (1987).

[6] Martin Innes, ‘Signal crimes’: Detective Work, Mass Media and Constructing Collective Memory, in Criminal Visions: Media Representations of Crime and Justice 51-69 (Paul Mason ed. 2003).

[7] Id.

[8] Interview, supra note 4.

[9] Ferguson unrest: From shooting to nationwide protests, BBC News (Aug. 10, 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-30193354.

[10] Sara Sidner & Mallory Simon, The rise of Black Lives Matter: Trying to break the cycle of violence and silence, CNN (Dec. 28, 2015, 8:28 AM ET), https://www.cnn.com/2015/12/28/us/black-lives-matter-evolution/index.html.

[11] Nazila Fathi, In a Death Seen Around the World, a Symbol of Iranian Protests, N.Y. Times (June 22, 2009), http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/23/world/middleeast/23neda.html.

[12] Interview, supra note 4.

[13] Yaron Steinbuch & Joe Tacopino, Woman records horrific scene after boyfriend is fatally shot by police, N.Y. Post (July 7, 2016, 12:55 AM), https://nypost.com/2016/07/07/woman-live-streams-bloody-aftermath-of-police-involved-shooting/.

[14] Interview, supra note 4.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Oriana Schwindt, Netflix Snags Global Streaming Rights to FX’s ‘American Crime Story’, Variety (July 25, 2016, 6:58 AM PT), http://variety.com/2016/tv/news/netflix-people-v-oj-simpson-american-crime-story-fx-deal-1201822010/.

[18] John Breech, O.J. Simpson’s infamous “If I did it” interview will finally air; here’s a preview, CBS Sports (Mar. 5, 2018), https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/o-j-simpsons-infamous-if-i-did-it-interview-will-finally-air-heres-a-preview/.

[19] Torie Bosch, Charlie Sheen Interviews: Tiger Blood, Adonis DNA and Charlie Sheen the Drug, Aol News (Feb. 28, 2011, 12:42 PM), https://web.archive.org/web/20120511004437/http://www.aolnews.com/2011/02/28/charlie-sheen-interviews-tiger-blood-adonis-dna-and-charlie-s/.

[20] Gregory S. Gordon, Aaron Hernandez, OJ Simpson and the Evolution of Justice for the NFL?, JURIST (Apr. 26 2015, 5:24 PM ET), www.jurist.org/forum/2015/04/gregory-gordon-aaron-hernandez.php.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Paul Vercammen, O.J. Simpson guilty of armed robbery, kidnapping, CNN (Oct. 4, 2008), http://www.cnn.com/2008/CRIME/10/04/oj.simpson.verdict/.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Emily Shapiro, OJ Simpson returns to Las Vegas after release from prison after serving 9 years for robbery, ABC News (Oct. 1 2017, 11:06 PM ET), http://abcnews.go.com/US/oj-simpson-released-prison-serving-years-vegas-robbery/story?id=50180766.

[30] Interview, supra note 4.

[31] Id.

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