Public knowledge about crime and justice is largely derived from the media. Research has shown that the more crime-related media a person consumes, the more they fear crime. The media has an immense influence on our society, as it not only disseminates information but also helps determine what topics and stories people are talking about. This can be a challenge for prosecutors, defendants, defense lawyers, and jurors when trying a case.
Media coverage of a trial, especially television cameras in the courtroom, can affect the behavior of witnesses and jurors. Stories that sensationalize violence or misexplain crime can distort public opinion and delay policy changes that have been proven 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. Mainstream media outlets have made an effort to focus on objective data in their reports, provide balanced perspectives, and adopt best practices when covering criminal justice issues. 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. 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. A well-researched story cannot reverse decades of biased information, but there is a growing movement by the media to recognize their role in shaping public perception of crime and criminal justice. Partisan opinion pieces have 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 how 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.