Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Idol Jury Part II

With the end of the audition phase of American Idol this week, this post seeks to amplify the issues raised in “The Idol Jury Part I” and to raise new aspects of the potential legal implications of the program.

Season 8 featured open auditions in eight cities. While there was a noticeable decline in the emphasis on quantities of oddities among contestants, such examples did exist and they were indeed highlighted. The contestants this season were from a multitude of races, religions, ethnicities and social backgrounds. Collectively, they represented the good, the bad, and the ugly in the realm of singing and performing abilities, as well as personalities. The stories of contestants ranged from the bizarre to the heartwarming to the heart wrenching. And the judges’ attitudes and antics ranged from objective to joking to unusual; this was seemingly amplified by the presence of a new judge on the panel. Apart from providing several nights of weekly entertainment – and perhaps boosting one’s ego while singing in the shower – what impacts can the Idol auditions have on juries?

The auditions reinforced the trend noted in “The Idol Jury I” regarding highlighting differences between the contestant and at least a portion of the viewing public, while at the same time establishing a sense of commonality between the contestant and another portion of the viewing public. Footage regarding the contestants frequently discussed their nationality, ethnicity, and other backgrounds, while other footage of family and friends silently emphasized the same traits. For those who do not share these traits, this emphasizes differences, which is a frequent concern during the voire dire process, where lawyers and judges (depending on jurisdiction) attempt to divine a potential juror’s prejudices or preferences regarding these traits. At the same time, this also has the potential to create feelings of support and empathy in viewers who share the same features and background, again mimicking the voire dire process. Unlike in the jury system, there is no preemptory challenge when it comes to Idol voting at later stages in the contest, however the Idol example illustrates the importance of having such challenges in the jury process. Much the same can be said for highlighting the physical attractiveness or unattractiveness of contestants which Idol’s programming makes possible on a yearly basis.

The auditions also showcase aspects of human personalities and motives that a juror might well see in the courtroom. Frequently, we are told the stories of contestants for whom a chance to advance in the Idol competition would afford a better life, often for their families as well as the contestants themselves. Through the highlighting of these instances, the viewer is directed to feel empathy for the contestant and to want them to succeed. This situation parallels the situation in which many jurors find themselves when they observe testimony given at trial that emphasizes the hard circumstances or grotesque injuries suffered by a party to the litigation, as well as for what their family endured or continues to endure. In this way, the program conditions potential jurors to feel sympathy, empathy, or both for those who have presented stories of personal or familial suffering.

At the same time, Idol’s showcasing of contestants who are convinced of their singing abilities – and the families/friends who support them – only to demonstrate that their abilities are sub-par at best mimics another scenario with which a potential juror might be confronted. While some sympathy might be felt for these contestants, the primary reaction, as framed by the program itself, is one of ridicule and disbelief, not only for the contestants but also for those who have convinced themselves of their abilities. Idol also presents contestants who seem to have based their entire sense of self-esteem on being a part of the Idol contest. It is easy to think that members of this collective class of Idol contestants are delusional and out of touch with reality based on their conviction in their abilities despite the judge’s assessment. In a similar vein, it is possible that a juror will encounter a situation in which a party or witness whose testimony or actions seem to be deluded or unrealistic or who seems to base their identity on being a stellar witness or plaintiff/defendant. Such people can become argumentative or defensive when challenged by counsel during a trial in a manner similar to the attitudes displayed by many Idol contestants when informed by the judges that they can’t sing. The reactions of viewers to these Idol contestants can thus reinforce the perceptions of these same viewers as potential jurors. Inspiring these sentiments – ranging from amusement to disgust – and shaping them for the viewers, allows the viewers to have more reinforced conceptions of such witnesses in the trial setting.

In terms of framing the reactions of potential jurors to parties and witnesses at trial, there is one other area in which Idol can be seen as having an impact. Throughout the program, the judges are frequently critical of the contestants, sometimes hypercritical. This can inspire many reactions in viewers, and some of these will be readdressed in later blog postings. What should be addressed here is the sense of compassion and sympathy that the judges’ comments can evoke in the viewer. Thus, the viewer’s opinion of a particular contestant can be formed in large part by the actions and attitudes of the judges. This is similar to the ways in which a counsel badgering or being unkind to a witness or party can make jurors more sympathetic towards that person, which in turn can increase that person’s credibility.

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