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With Audience In Mind, Media Offers Varied Treatment Of Chauvin Trial


We are going to turn our attention now to the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd. That gruesome event last May, captured on cameras carried by police and bystanders alike, has become a touchstone, setting off some of the largest demonstrations for social and racial justice in history. And now the trial has also become a cultural event, captured by cameras, broadcast live. We wanted to talk about that, which media organizations are covering the trial and how and what effect this could be having on viewers. And we're joined now by Eric Deggans, who reports on television and has been thinking about this.

Eric, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So we are now speaking at the end of the second week of the trial. How has this been treated as a media event? So I take it that the networks are taking very different approaches.

DEGGANS: Yeah, we've seen some cable TV news channels go into continuous coverage mode as the trial is going on, so CNN, MSNBC, HLN. Court TV used it as a way to sort of relaunch the channel to get attention for a new version of Court TV. And then there are some channels that are not covering it continuously, most notably Fox News and Newsmax TV, two cable channels that are conservative-oriented. And then you also have the tack where some channels are updating.

So there's a lot of different coverage options for people who want to watch it. And I think that's actually a good thing because so much of this testimony can be traumatizing. And, you know, people sometimes have this habit of turning on CNN or turning on a cable channel when it's showing something like a trial that goes on for hours and just having it run as sort of wallpaper while they do their work. And you don't understand how much that can agitate you, how much that can traumatize you in ways that you're not consciously aware of.

So I'm just asking people to focus on how much of this trial you're consuming. Be careful about how much you're consuming. And if you feel like it's affecting you personally, then there's nothing wrong with stepping away from it and maybe catching up with it later.

MARTIN: I want to isolate a couple things that you talked about and talk about those things separately. The first thing I want to ask you about is - why do you think the networks are taking such a different approach to this subject matter? Notably, you said that, well, Court TV - that is - that has been - their signature is, you know, covering trials, you know, continuously. And you're saying that the right-leaning channels are not. I'm just interested in your thoughts about why there are such different approaches.

DEGGANS: Well, being somebody who's covered TV for a long time, I am super cynical about the media business. And so I think a great deal of this is rooted in ratings and audience. If a news and information channel thinks that continuous coverage of the trial will boost their viewership or for some reason, it - their audience expects it, they will provide it. And if they think it will hurt their ratings, then they won't cover it. Or they will cover it more sporadically.

And so, you know, Court TV decided to relaunch. And of course, a high-profile trial is a great way to get people to pay attention to the channel as it reemerges. Fox News. I'm betting the reason why Fox News and Newsmax are not covering it continuously is because their audience does not want to see it and certainly doesn't want to see it, continuously. And so their ratings would probably drop if they covered it continuously. And I think they're aware of that.

MARTIN: So, Eric, have people been interested in watching this? I understand that The New York Times is reporting that viewer interest is high and that for several days last week, for example, CNN's highest ratings came in the afternoon during witness testimony rather than during its prime-time hours.

DEGGANS: That makes sense. But if those ratings are from last week, that's from when the trial was starting. And the sense that I'm getting, again, just from talking to people and sort of discussing this issue on social media and things like that is that as the trial wears on, particularly the prosecution end of it wears on, people are starting to realize they're hearing the same ideas. And I think there's also a sense that this video of George Floyd dying has been in the public space for almost a year now. And people have kind of made their decisions about what they think happened.

And so barring some kind of testimony that seems, you know, sort of remarkable - like, I think if Derek Chauvin testifies, that will be a landmark moment. And tons of people will want to see that in real time. I'm not surprised that - you know, that people are tuning in. But my own sense is that there are also a lot of people who are moderating their consumption of the trial because it's just too tough for them to watch.

MARTIN: You know, I'm really fascinated by your - you've mentioned this several times about how people are trying to figure out how much of this to watch. One of the reasons that's interesting is - well, it's interesting on any number of levels. But it's hard not to note the parallels with the O.J. Simpson trial that also riveted the world and had people glued to their TVs. This is very different for a lot of reasons. I wanted to ask you about that. But one of them is that I don't remember there being any discussion during that trial of - should we really be watching this? So just - would you just talk a little bit about that, like, how this compares to the O.J. Simpson trial?

DEGGANS: Sure. Sure. I mean, in some ways there are similarities in that these were both very high-profile events that produced international reaction. We're getting continuous coverage of both trials available on many different TV outlets. But O.J. Simpson was a celebrity and was accused of a very specific crime. And that trial was sort of the - a coming together of a bunch of things, you know, questions about how celebrities are treated by law enforcement, questions about how law enforcement polices people of color, even when you're celebrity, questions about even whether cameras should even be allowed to broadcast the trial.

In this case, you know, we're at a point where we've seen George Zimmerman's trial, continuous coverage of a lot of high profile, you know, trials. So - and also, this is a situation where I think it's easier for people of color, especially, to put themselves in George Floyd's shoes and feel as if this could happen to them or this could happen to a relative or this can happen to someone they care about and see themselves - excuse me - in what happened.

And then beyond that, we also have a situation where we have witnessed a lot of trauma on television related to the policing, the killing of Black people at the hands of law enforcement. And so now, we're aware of how that affects us when we see it on television because we've experienced it so often and for so long. And so I think - you know, I think it's important that people keep an eye on that. And I'm glad that it's part of the conversation now.

MARTIN: That was NPR's TV writer Eric Deggans. Eric, thank you so much.

DEGGANS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.