How does media coverage impact criminal justice?

Public knowledge about crime and justice is largely derived from the media. Research has examined the impact of media consumption on fear of crime, punitive attitudes and the perception of police effectiveness. Studies have found that the more crime-related media a person consumes, the more they fear crime. The media exert an enormous influence on our society.

Newspapers, radio, television, and new media not only disseminate information, but they also help determine what topics and stories people are talking about. Many crimes receive extensive media coverage, making it a challenge for prosecutors, as well as for defendants and defense lawyers, when trying a case. Jurors are supposed to be impartial in deciding a case, regardless of the news coverage they received before the trial. Police officers involved in criminal cases may become entangled with the media in the process of providing information about a case.

Media coverage of a trial, especially television cameras in the courtroom, can affect the behavior of witnesses and jurors. While not backed by data, this type of biased narrative is familiar to experts who study criminal justice. Stories that needlessly sensationalize violence or misexplain crime harm people in the real world. They can also distort public opinion in ways that delay policy changes that have been shown to improve public safety.

However, there are solutions inside and outside the media that can move our journalistic diet towards more evidence-based and fact-based information. A Stanford University study found that “press coverage increases the influence of voters' criminal preferences on the criminal sentence decisions of judges elected for serious violent crimes. Mainstream media outlets made an effort to focus objective data in their reports, provide balanced perspectives and adopt best practices when covering criminal justice issues. It was later discovered that Wuornos' lawyer, Steven Glazer, who lacked previous experience in criminal law, accepted his case out of self-promotion, as he knew the media coverage the case was receiving.

A well-researched story cannot reverse decades of biased information, but there is a growing movement by the media to recognize the role they play in the public perception of crime and criminal justice. The authors concluded that if justice scholars and other professionals are not actively involved in the development of criminal justice stories in the media, news and entertainment producers, by default, are the ones who determine the perception of this industry. Partisan opinion pieces seized the opportunity to draw connections between criminal justice reforms and the increase in crime, without evidence. While these are promising measures to destigmatize and recalibrate the way people involved in the criminal justice system appear in the news, more needs to be done to correct and counter misleading information that influences elections and policies.

Kania began examining prime time depictions of criminal justice issues on television and in print media in the mid-1980s. Despite the biased effect of pretrial publicity, the Supreme Court has ruled that courts cannot prevent the press from publishing truthful information about criminal trials, as doing so would violate the First Amendment right to freedom of the press. .

Luis Mersinger
Luis Mersinger

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