False Memories from Media Repetition

Do you remember seeing the video of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Bomber, put down his explosive-laden backpack on the pavement? You might remember it. Think it over – try to see if you recall even a vague image from the footage that was released. If you do, that’s completely normal. But you may be shocked to learn that your memory is false.

If you thought you remembered seeing the video you are not alone. Despite the fact the video was never released to the public, many people have developed false memories of seeing Tsarnaev place the backpack on the ground. This included one of the prospective jurors:

But the day after the appeals court hearing, a prospective juror said she couldn’t get that video out of her mind, and here was how she described it: “The image of him putting the backpack behind that little boy.” Even in the still shown by NBC, no little boy is visible. (The judge had ordered prospective jurors not to read, watch, or listen to anything about the case.)

There are people who assert that the Boston explosion was a false flag event or a hoax. I am not asserting that, nor is this article about that. Instead, it’s about checking the images and impressions we develop as a result of the media. It may be factually true that Tsarnaev did (or did not) put the bomb on the ground. It’s also factually true that the actual video frame of Tsarnaev placing the backpack on the ground has never been released to the public.

Yet, countless members of the public believe that they’ve seen footage of exactly this. Including the trial jurors who will determine the fate of the accused.

This isn’t strange. The people who think they saw it are not delusional or stupid. It’s a normal cognitive phenomenon – psychology 101. The media asserted, repeatedly, that Tsarnaev placed the backpack on the ground. This may be factually true. Yet, over time the media reconstruction of events took on pictorial form in the minds of viewers. We imagined visually what we were told verbally.

The defense for Tsarnaev, if we can call it a defense, began by admitting guilt off the bat. Nonetheless, in the American legal myth all persons are “innocent until proven guilty.” But a myth, and only a myth, it is. The media narrative, the information presented by police, was sufficient to convince virtually everyone that Tsarnaev was guilty before the trial. And, again, maybe he is. But forget Tsarnaev. The exact same thing happens to every criminal defendant who is unfortunate enough to experience media publicity. It could happen to you.

And while the trial system is never fair, by design, the myth of the “fair trial” is brought into question. When criminal defendants are tried by the media, when an entire nation is polarized, when everyone comes to a conclusion based on one-sided information presented by cable television, no “fair trial” can be had.


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