True crime lost in translation

I made an unscheduled volcano-stop in Italy the other day and happened to be given a copy of Angel Face – The True Story of Student Killer Amanda Knox written by the Rome-based journalist Barbie Latza Nadeau. The trial, which followed the angelfacemurder of British student Meredith Kercher in Perugia in 2007, is a controversial sex-and-violence epic by no means yet over. At least two of the three people convicted of killing Kercher, including Knox, are likely to appeal long prison sentences. In Italy, such appeals go through two stages and take years.

The aspect of the story that caught my eye was the tale Nadeau tells of the manipulation of the case’s coverage. Trials which cross national frontiers have long been stories in which much gets lost in translation. Conventional forms of news journalism don’t find it easy to explain one legal system to the citizens of another. Never mind the international dimension: criminal trials are hard to report with accuracy because of the quantity of detail and the adversarial testing evidence in the courtroom.

Nadeau analyses what she thinks happened and her conclusion is not far from the long report recently produced by the trial judge. But she also draws a picture of access-trading by the US television networks which explains why so many Americans were so surprised when Knox, who had been painted in her own country as an innocent student subjected to a trial which was the “railroad from hell”, was convicted.

Trading slant for access is hardly new in television news. The Italian justice system, tainted by the widespread practice of leaking court and police documents, isn’t perfect. But Nadeau, who reports for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, is especially well placed to trace how the misuse of ignorance can warp the picture. She is English-speaking but has been reporting from Rome for 14 years. Despite these advantages, Nadeau was mostly cut off from access to Knox’s family and its lawyers because the Knox camp divided journalists into innocentisti – those who believed she was innocent – and the colpevolisti, those who thought Amanda was guilty. Nadeau’s main crime, as a leading blogger and reporter among the colpevolisti, was to think and write that the trial had been fair. The Knox campaign worked hard to produce unbalanced reporting done in ignorance and from a distance. This is the sort of thing that appeared on the US networks and even on a blog at the New York Times.

Simple point here. The shape of journalism to come is seen in terms of tribal rivalry between digital on the one hand and mainstream media on the other. As it happens – and of course it happens more and more frequently – Nadeau is both a blogging reporter (for the Daily Beast, who published her book) and a print reporter (for Newsweek). What makes her account better is not a platform or a technology but her language skill, her regular attendance at the trial and her thoroughness.

Read it for yourself and see. The case will be back in the news in the autumn when the appeal gets rolling.


1 comment

  1. I may have to get this book, as I have read every column inch in the press about this case, which happened while I was abroad myself and really haunted me.

    Having read the reports from every perspective, my instinct still said that Foxy Knoxy’s unnaturally hardboiled behaviour was indicative of her guilt. Good job I don’t work in the criminal justice system!