Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Charmane Sing

B.Comm, currently 2nd Year Law Student at the University of Alberta

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An important aspect in evaluating a statement is the content of the message. If a statement sounds outrageous and unrealistic, the recipient of the message would most likely disregard the statement because there is minimal, if any, value or truth to it.


by Charmane Sing

Andrew Jarecki's documentary, Capturing the Friedmans, is a brilliant investigation of the concept of "credibility." We all agree that honesty is a cherished value that is embedded deeply in our culture. Without honesty, we would be unable to come to a conclusion on many matters because we can't be present at all places at all times. As a result, we must rely on the words of others. The underlying value of honesty is in its ability to allow us to trust, or distrust, statements made by another party about these events. In some situations, one might be unable to grasp what the "truth" is or determine who is telling the truth. This is the dilemma that Capturing the Friedmans confronts.

Capturing the Friedmans is a film that consists of numerous interviews, home videos and snippets of news coverage from 1987 about the Friedman family of Great Neck, New York. The father, Arnold Friedman, and his youngest son, Jesse, were both alleged to have molested numerous young male students enrolled in their computer class. The details surrounding the charges constantly conflict with one another throughout the film. At the end of the day, the viewer would be left wondering what really happened in those computer classes and who was telling the truth.

To better understand how we, as viewers, draw our conclusions as to what the "truth" is, it is essential to understand how we make judgments of credibility. There are four major factors that assist us to evaluate whether a statement or information given to us is true. The four factors are as follows:

1. What the message is about,
2. Who is telling the message,
3. How the message is being told, and
4. How much you know about the subject matter.
To begin, an important aspect in evaluating a statement is the content of the message. If a statement sounds outrageous and unrealistic, the recipient of the message would most likely disregard the statement because there is minimal, if any, value or truth to it. For example, in Capturing the Friedmans, the police stated that there was pornography everywhere in the house and that the pornography magazines were not hidden. It is difficult for a viewer to accept this statement because it sounds ridiculous that pornography would be highly visible around the house. If that is the case, one wonders why haven't the parents noticed the magazines when they picked their children up from their computer classes? Therefore, if a statement sounds far-fetched, it is unlikely that one will believe the statement.

However, if there is a doubt to the truth of its content, the person delivering the message can be influential to one's decision. For example, if the person communicating the message has a reputation of being honest and reliable, I would probably believe her statement over the same message given by a habitual liar. One might also believe a statement given by a person of authority. For example, when the judge and the police believed that Arnold and Jesse were guilty, one might be more inclined to conclude that they were guilty as well. Hence, the status and the reputation of the person making the statement are important criteria that we rely on when we evaluate the credibility of a statement.

In Capturing the Friedmans, there were numerous sources of information and various people commenting on Arnold and Jesse. Based on their different standpoints, one might draw different conclusions from their statements. The primary people who provided commentaries in the film were the accused themselves and their family members. When Arnold's wife, Elaine, was under pressure by her sons to say that Arnold was innocent and when time after time she refused to do so, one might conclude that Arnold was probably guilty. This is because the viewer expects the last person to provide negative statements about the accused to be his wife. Conversely, the viewer may also be skeptical at comments provided by people who are close to the accused or comments given by the accused himself. For example, the viewer might conclude that Jesse's brother, David, and Arnold's brother, Howard, were merely vouching for their family. Therefore, one might expect bias in their statements and as a result, view their statements to be unreliable.

On the other hand, viewers may be convinced if they were given the information by the media. The media is capable of influencing our view of the world and what we perceive to be true. Thus applying this concept to Capturing the Friedmans, the extensive news coverage on the Friedman case has the ability to influence the community, including the judge and many parents, that Arnold and Jesse are pedophiles and sexual offenders.

The form in which the message is being publicized through the media will also have an impact to the reliability of the statement. In other words, the medium of communication chosen has an effect on the strength of the statement. For example, would you believe a witness if you heard his oral testimony? Perhaps. Would you be more influenced if you not only heard the witness' testimony, but was also given a photograph to support what he was saying? Most likely, you would have a more affirmative answer as to whether you believe or disbelieve the witness' story. It is more convincing to the recipient when there are visual images, such as photographs and videos, to enhance or verify a statement.

In my opinion, the home videos shown in Capturing the Friedmans revealing the close father-son relationship between Arnold and his three sons and also David's "private" recording of himself raving about the accusations against his father and brother were highly convincing evidence of Arnold and Jesse's innocence. This is because home videos are generally seen to be authentic. The people being videotaped tend to put their masks down and are their true selves because most of the time, they feel comfortable with the person who is holding the camera. There is also an unspoken expectation that the home videos are to be privately viewed amongst family and friends and not by the public. Therefore, there is no reason for a person to lie in a home video. This is precisely why viewers may question whether Arnold and Jesse did commit such horrible crimes because the home videos seem to favour their innocence.

Finally, the amount of knowledge viewers have on the subject matter will have an effect on the ultimate decision of whether to believe a statement or not. Generally, the more you know about a subject matter, the better you are able to assess the credibility of a statement. However, there appears to be an exception for Capturing the Friedmans. It was nearly impossible to have a concrete conclusion from the film as to what truly happened. In fact, the viewer's opinion and conclusion constantly changes as new evidence surfaces. For that reason, credibility is a concept that is not permanent and is capable of changing depending on the amount of information known at a certain point in time. For example, when Howard insisted that Arnold never had sexual relations with him when they were younger, I was convinced by him until the camera moved back and showed Howard's partner sitting beside him. Then one wonders how truthful Howard was and how the revelation of Howard's sexual preference changed the viewer's decision. Perhaps Howard's sexuality inferred that a sexual relationship between Howard and Arnold (as described in Arnold's letter to Debbie) was possible and was not completely unrealistic. Therefore, the additional information of Howard's sexual preference has the power to change our views on an issue and as a result, it caused my suspicion of Howard's story.

The amount of information the recipient has, the method of communication, the messenger delivering the statement and the substance of the message are four aspects that are interrelated and are all at play together when we make judgments of credibility. In addition, we also decide what is credible based on personal beliefs and possibly make judgments based on what we want to believe rather than what the evidence points to. Therefore, it is important to take note of our own bias when we make judgments of credibility. For example, when I compared the two former computer students' testimonies in the film, I was swayed to accept one statement over the other partly because of the difference in their physical appearance. The former computer student sitting in an office wearing business attire appeared more credible than the other former computer student lying on his coach in his casual T-shirt and shorts at home. As commonly known, appearances may be deceiving. It is possible that the former computer student with the casual attire was truthful whereas the other former student was not. Hence, one must be careful not to allow personal bias to play a highly influential factor when we make important decisions, especially when a person's liberty is at stake.

Overall, there are many factors simultaneously influencing our judgments of credibility. Our perception of what is "true" may change throughout time as we, ourselves, change and as new information arises. In Capturing the Friedmans, the viewer will most likely leave the theatre wondering whether they will ever know what the truth is and whether there is more information for them to uncover. Whichever conclusion one might draw from the film, it is probably just as good of a guess as mine.

Posted December 9, 2003

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