UCA School of Communication Class Takes On Depp v. Heard

Students presented projects in a fair in the lobby at Win Thompson Hall. Photo contributed by the School of Communication.

When Dylan McLemore watched news coverage of the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial, he saw a legal case with issues that the University of Central Arkansas School of Communication champions: media coverage, reputation management and social media behaviors.

So perfectly aligned, in fact, that the UCA associate professor of public relations created a course about the defamation trial this past spring semester to help students understand this case where pop culture, communication, the law and gender studies merged.

“The trial was a circus starring your favorite movie stars,” said McLemore. “I’ve mentioned Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s ongoing defamation battles for years in my Media Law and Ethics class. Then last year, my students were glued to the televised trial in a way they’ve never paid attention to a media law issue in my 12 years of teaching. But the trial was so much more than communication law.”

Conducted in 2022, the trial ruled on competing claims of defamation between formerly married actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. The allegations included various accusations of abuse and sexual violence resulted instead of the jury awarding $15 million in damages to Depp and $2 million to Heard.

Since the case contained many topics relevant to other disciplines, the class had an interdisciplinary foundation. McLemore worked with other departments within the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences to allow students to earn credits from four degree programs: public relations, journalism, communication and legal studies; however, the class also welcomed students from other majors such as biology and sociology. McLemore admitted that teaching a broad range of majors had its challenges.

“Facilitating conversation and understanding between such a diverse group of students entering with different bodies of knowledge and approaches to inquiry is difficult, but so important, and so rewarding when it works,” he said.

The class ended with presentations on April 27, at Win Thompson Hall, where students presented projects examining various aspects of the trial.

The celebrity star power of Depp and Heard sparked coverage that dominated newsfeeds and conversations, driven by short videos that went viral on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Predominantly pro-Depp and anti-Heard, the videos presented a hero versus a villain storyline. This inspired Hannah Jobe, a senior journalism major, and Grace Lee, a junior public relations major, to study 60 videos on various platforms and determine how they restored Depp’s public image.

“Johnny Depp started looking more charismatic among viewers with these videos of him on the stand laughing and making sarcastic remarks and comebacks,” said Jobe.

Emma Davis, a senior political science major, examined how this coverage resulted in online abuse towards Heard with derogatory memes; hashtag doxing, which is exposing an individual’s personal information online; flooding a business with negative reviews; and amplifying a negative message with fake social media accounts. Studying the most trending hashtags related to the trial, she pulled the top 100 posts from Twitter using these hashtags and found deceptive practices. For the most popular 100 tweets using #AmberHeardIsALiar, she found that half were hashtag spamming, a practice which was used to artificially amplify anti-Heard rhetoric and create a false perception of overwhelming opposition to Amber Heard.

The issues common to legal proceedings in the Covid-19 pandemic, meanwhile, forced other students to compare how jurors may consider evidence differently from in-person witnesses and testimonies conducted virtually. Kaya-Ann Mason, a junior sociology major, and Rivers Runion-Driskell, a senior public relations major, concluded that many would trust video testimonies less than in-person witnesses, often because of video quality including subpar light, sound, camera angles and setting.

By using these real-world examples, students gained insight to prepare them for situations they may face in their careers.

Mia Waddell, a senior journalism major, said the class gave her a better understanding of reporting on sensitive issues responsibly.

“I learned about ethical reporting on domestic violence,” said Waddell. “This case was unique. Even though it was a defamation case, there were a lot of graphic accusations of domestic violence, and as a journalist, you have to be careful when you’re covering that. It was very insightful on a subject that I don’t have any real-world experience in.”