News of Harvey Weinstein’s conviction and sentencing has been overshadowed worldwide by the COVID-19 pandemic and hence his conviction will not have the profound impact on attitudes to sexual abuse and the #MeToo movement that was previously expected, due to what is known as the ‘crowding out’ effect.
The Coronavirus pandemic has been dominating headlines worldwide now since February. Most news stories are somehow related to the current pandemic, whether it be the impact of COVID-19 on the economy or the GAA, and there is little media or public attention being given to any non-COVID related news. Many issues that were previously considered very important and warranted much attention are now on the back burner.
The Weinstein scandal was high profile, front page news before COVID-19 hit, but since then little has been reported in the media. Weinstein’s conviction and sentencing were reported on the days they occurred, but there has been very little follow up in the media since.
New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey broke the initial story detailing a plethora of sexual assault allegations against the powerful Hollywood producer that stretched back decades in October 2017. This is the story that triggered the #MeToo movement against sexual assault and harassment which prompted many women to accuse powerful men of sexual misconduct and to share their stories of abuse.
Weinstein was arrested on May 25th 2018 when he turned himself in to the New York Police Department after a 7-month investigation, having spent months trying to deflect multiple investigations into his sexual abuse. The trial began in January 2020 and on 24th February he was convicted of the rape of one woman and a criminal sex act against another in the New York Supreme Court. He was sentenced to 23 years in prison on 11 March 2020.
On 10th April 2020 Weinstein was charged with a new felony sexual assault count by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office.
The spread of Coronavirus was concurrent with the above events, therefore drawing media (and hence public) attention away from Weinstein and directing it at the virus.
Originating in China in late December 2019, COVID-19 then spread rapidly throughout the world. The outbreak was mainly confined to China throughout January 2020 when Weinstein’s trial began. It hit the US and Europe by the beginning of February 2020 and panic levels began to rise with the death toll.
By 23 February (Weinstein’s conviction was 24 February) Europe saw its first major outbreak in Italy and countries began to shut down to stop the spread. March 11– the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, the same day as Weinstein was sentenced.
Attention is a scarce resource in terms of both human capacity and social arenas so issues necessarily compete for attention in the news. Further, psychologists claim that there is a limit to our emotional and cognitive abilities to attend issues, and that there is a finite pool of worry- meaning that other problems become less salient where one problem in causing anxiety and concern. It appears that global worry about COVID-19 is pushing other news stories such as Weinstein’s conviction out of people’s minds and out of the media.
The ‘crowding out’ effect of news on other news is an established phenomenon on which scientific research has been conducted. ‘Crowding out’ is often used a deliberate political strategy; by executing controversial or unpopular measures on days where other important, planned events take up media attention, politicians can protect their popularity and avoid public scrutiny. One such example is Putin’s announcement of a tax increase and a rise in retirement age on the day of the inauguration of the 2018 Fifa World Cup that Russia was hosting.
In this case, the crowding out of Weinstein’s conviction by the pandemic is unintentional, but it yields the same result – that media (and therefore public) attention has/is being drawn away from Weinstein by the COVID-19 outbreak, and hence that will have knock on effects on the #MeToo movement.
Research by scientists Djourelova and Durante in 2019 found robust evidence that executive orders are more likely to be signed on the eve of days when the news is dominated by important predictable events (days of high levels of news pressure) that crowd out news coverage of the executive orders. The results of Monika Djerf-Pierre’s 2012 study found evidence of a clear and consistent crowding out effect of war and armed conflict news and economic news on environmental news.
Law and Politics Module Coordinator and law lecturer in UCD, Mr John O’Dowd said, “it will be interesting to see how the public perception of the Weinstein case and its significance develops as he still faces prosecution in California, a case which may well go to trial when the news headlines are not dominated in the same way by COVID-19. This contrasts with Cardinal George Pell’s case, where there is no clear prospect of further charges against him.”
Although Google trends show that searches for ‘Coronavirus’ have been steadily dropping since March, worldwide in the past 3 months, searches for ‘Coronavirus’ still dwarf the number of searches for ‘Harvey Weinstein’.
There were high hopes for the impact of Weinstein’s conviction and sentencing on the #MeToo movement and wider attitudes to sexual abuse and power in Hollywood. But as news coverage of this issue has dwindled, it seems unlikely that what should have been the culmination of the #MeToo movement will have the effect that was hoped for.
Weinstein is the first abuser of the #MeToo era about whom allegations were brought to light, so it’s fitting that he be prosecuted first and hence why his prosecution is (or should be) so meaningful and symbolic.
The conviction was hailed as a victory for the #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct by powerful men. The Irish Times called it “a landmark of the MeToo era” and his trial was described as “a watershed moment for the #MeToo movement”.
The lack of coverage since the pandemic hit means that the aspirations for what Weinstein’s conviction would mean may not come to fruition, or at least not to the fullest extent that they would have under normal circumstances.
The time and effort we would have spent analysing what Weinstein’s conviction means for attitudes to sexual assault and powerful abusers has instead been dedicated to the pandemic – and rightly so, but at what cost to the #MeToo movement?
Amy Doolan – Assistant News Editor