Summer Civics Lesson

School’s out, but there are always opportunities for learning. This summer, the tragic case of the murder of Caylee Anthony gives us a chance to talk with kids about our court system and how it works, reality—and the media.

If you haven’t followed this, a young mother Casey Anthony was accused of murdering her preschool daughter, Cayley, and disposing of the body. She was tried for first-degree murder and acquitted. The case is tragic, grisly and messy with many unanswered questions.

What has been truly surprising has been the level of hatred directed at this young woman by people who, seemingly, wanted this case to be tied up neatly, like an episode of “Law and Order” or “NCIS.” That’s not the way the world works. As one juror said in a post-trial interview, the prosecution never established how the girl was killed, where or when and that those elements are critical to assessing guilt. It is irrelevant that hordes of people want this to play out like a TV series with a neat and tidy ending that confirms a belief system, but that’s not what happened—and that’s not reality.

At the same time, the media circus that was created out of this was designed out of this was built on the desire for people to have a real-life crime drama. As I watched Nancy Grace giving her opinions as facts on a daily basis, I kept thinking of the Queen of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland,” whose constant refrain was “Off with their heads.” Grace, Headline News and ABC treated this as entertainment/news, and it worked for them, boosting ratings and having people watch. In a summer when complex budget negotiations can make somewhat dry fodder, a big, juicy crime drama provides entertainment value. Yet, this runs the risk of teaching our children something very dangerous—that opinions carry more weight than facts and that wanting something to be true is the same as its being true. That’s not reality. Grace has made a career out of her righteous style, and her assertions that she “knows” things, which cannot be proven. At the end of the day, though, facts prevail and while it may take a while, the law of the land with regard to guilt or innocence is reasonable doubt. You can dislike the results all you want, but unless you are in the jury, you do not have the whole story, and it is only your opinion. What is remarkable to me now is that Grace has turned her attention to criticizing the jury. Her survival as a media personality is dependent on playing to her audience like any good vaudevillian, and her audience will have the emotional satisfaction of feeling that, despite the facts in evidence and the jury verdict, they know that Casey was guilty. Humility? Compassion? Not for this crowd. It’s all about emotional catharsis and self-righteousness. And don’t forget, that’s what sells the advertising and gets the eyeballs.

So where’s the civics lesson in this? Well, it’s a chance to talk to our kids about how life doesn’t always mirror TV; it’s not always neat and tidy. In fact, at times it’s quite messy with loose ends and frustrating lack of resolution. It’s a chance to talk about opinion versus fact, and to question assertions made by people. It’s also a chance to learn about our system of government. You can find a great introduction to the legal system written for kids here.

You might also get a kick out of a little summer reading. Jack Finney’s classic book, “Forgotten News” puts a lot of our current media hysteria around this and other cases in perspective. It covers “crimes of the century” from the beginning of the 20th century—the cases that transfixed the nation but have long been forgotten in the passing of time. It shows in a highly entertaining way, how stirring up passions is good for newspaper sales. The book is appropriate to share with kids ages 10 and up, and it can help put a lot of the hype around this case in historical perspective. Yes, tragic as it is, this too will pass.

What won’t pass, one hopes, are the lessons we can impart to our kids about our government and how to be intelligent consumers of information where reason has more weight than emotion.

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