Breaking into Prison: News Sources and Correctional Institutions
Doyle, Aaron, Ericson, Richard V., Canadian Journal of Criminology
Some critics blame the glacial pace of prison reform on limited public awareness of the failures and horrors of penal institutions. In turn, this lack of public awareness is blamed partially on poor news coverage of prisons. For example, Wright (1 982) argues that -in general the media have achieved little more than a slight and occasional public awareness that all is not well with the penal system". Similarly, Mathiesen (1990) writes: 'in the newspapers, on television, in the whole range of media, the prison is simply not recognized as a fiasco, but as a necessary if not always fully successful method of reaching purported goals". Lotz (1991) states, While few commentators mention how the media cover prisons, those who do generally agree... that the press hardly attends to prison life at all".
Garofalo (1981: 327) argues that "the news media pay little attention to the later stages of the criminal justice system, primarily ignoring corrections". Indeed, statistical evidence suggests that prisons get very little news media coverage compared to the courts and, especially, to the police. For example, Graber's content analysis (1 980: 46) showed only two per cent of the crime stories in the Chicago Tribune over the period examined were corrections stories. Dussuyer (1979: 53), in her content analysis of Ontario newspapers, found only 4.3 per cent of the news items about crime and the justice system had to do with corrections. Ericson, Baranek, and Chan (1991: 193) analyzed an extensive sample of news from six Toronto newspaper and broadcast outlets. They found that, of 529 law enforcement sources quoted in the sample, just six were correctional officials.
Two analyses of prison news by American criminologists dispute what they call the "conventional wisdom" that prisons do not get much media coverage. Jacobs and Brooks (1983) and Lotz (1991) counted the prison stories appearing over an extended period in some major American media outlets. Neither study looked at the relative amount of space given to the courts and the police, so the disagreement may be simply one of shifting frames of reference. If media content is examined over an extended period, one can find a number of stories about prisons; yet, prisons still get little coverage compared to earlier stages of the criminal process.
A related observation is that the routine operations of the prison system functioning as intended are very seldom the subject of news stories. This situation contrasts with the fact that there are many news stories about day-to-day police and court operations such as arrests, charges, convictions, and sentencing. Jacobs and Brooks (1983) conducted the only quantitative breakdown thus far of the various copies of prison news articles. They examined coverage of prisons in 1976 in the New York Times, the New York Daily News, on television's CBS News, and in national magazines and journals. They found the majority of prison stories involved celebrity inmates (26 per cent), disturbances (14 per cent), escapes (6 per cent), litigation (10 per cent), or other human interest stories (8 per cent). A substantial portion (32 per cent) of stories in the sample involved some aspect of penal policy or prison conditions. Even these latter stories emerged largely from events outside the routine flow of prison life, events such as the release of reports on the prison system or the introduction of new legislation.
The news media narrative of a criminal case seems most often to consist of the crime, investigation, arrest, trial, and sentence. There the story ends - the offender, the villain in the piece, simply lives unhappily ever after.
One might argue that prisons get little coverage simply because sentences of incarceration are only a minority of all court dispositions. Most criminal cases which receive media attention, however, seem to involve offences which might result in prison sentences. Colloquially put, the media tend to focus on the hard end of the system. For example, research for the Canadian Sentencing Commission (1988) found that 70 per cent of sentences reported in a sample of newspaper courts coverage were for imprisonment. Non-custodial elements of the correctional system, such as probation, seem to receive even less media attention than prisons.
In sum, there is a good deal of evidence suggesting that correctional institutions get limited coverage from the media. It is difficult to say why this might be the case. This difficulty arises because there has been very limited research on the actual process by which news stories of prisons are produced. Previous research has studied other specialized media "beats", including the police and courts (Fishman 1980; Ericson, Baranek, and Chan 1989). There has been little research about a parallel prisons "beat".
We suggest empirical research on how prison news is produced has implications for two bodies of theory: that relating to the social history of punishment, and that relating to the news media and criminal justice.
Firstly, a number of critical social historians have described a trend over the last two centuries towards the "veiling" of the application of punishment. Theorists since Emile Durkheim have argued that punishment is an act of communication to a wider audience. In his excellent synthesis of social theory and penology, Punishment and Modern Society (1990: 71), David Garland, however, suggests there has been an historical shift since the years when crowds thronged to the gallows. Garland argues that the communicative aspects of the social institution of punishment are now focused earlier in the criminal process, rather than after the passing of sentence. As Garland states, 'the focus of public attention, and the locus of ritual display, is... the declaration of punishment, rather than the process of punishment itself, which tends to be conducted in privatized circumstances, away from public view".
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault (1977) detailed an historical shift in the nature of punishment, from an emotive ritual public spectacle to a hidden technical operation that takes place on the "capillary level". Spierenburg (1984: 184) has also described how punishment moved from a public spectacle to a low-visibility, sanitized operation as part of a wider "civilizing" process of changing sensibilities in society. Spierenburg argued, "the privatization of repression means first and foremost the removal from public view of a spectacle that was becoming intolerable. The convict's fate within prison walls was of less concern". Similarly, Rutherford (1984: 103) suggested: "once the central government established prison systems, prisons became increasingly secret places".
Different theoretical accounts of the history of punishment offer diverse explanations for this historical trend towards shielding punishment from publicity. Varying degrees of instrumentality are ascribed to this "veiling of punishment". Some key penal historians such as Ignatieff (1978) and Beattie (1984) have argued that the privatization or veiling of punishment was, at least partially, aimed at preserving the legitimacy of the state and maintaining ruling class power.
Some argue that poor media coverage of prisons today may stem in large part from tight official control over prison news Scraton, Sim, and Skidmore 1991). Thus, one might argue that this is a contemporary extension of the historic trend towards the "veiling of punishment" by authorities. an empirical examination of how prison news is produced allows us to explore this possibility.
Secondly, researching the production of prison news also builds on the literature on the news media and criminal justice. Prison news has been much less researched than news of earlier stages of the criminal process. Dominant ideology theorists have argued that journalists are very subordinate to official sources in covering crime and punishment. In their darkest portrayals of crime news. some theorists tend to negate the media as a potential site in which hegemonic institutions and practises can be challenged. For example, Stuart Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, and Roberts offered a highly pessimistic account of media relations with officialdom in Policing the Crisis (1978). In their model, the news media simply treat official accounts as the plain facts. They place a heavy reliance on regular sources, such as police, who are voices of the hegemonic order. These sources become what the authors call -primary definers- (Hall et al. 1978: 59) although alternative sources may also have some varying levels of access to media. Hall and colleagues argue thus that journalists exist in a state of 'structured subordination' to official sources. This is not seen as the result of a conspiracy among the media and the authorities, but of routine social practises. However, the news media are likened to an -ideological state apparatus" (Hall et al. 1978: 76).
Similarly, Mark Fishman's work (1978; 1980; 1981) argues that a key factor is daily hunger of media outlets for a steady flow of police news. Fishman (1980) described how the bureaucratic and economic logic of news production, deadline and financial pressure, causes an over-reliance on readily available and easily legitimated information from official sources. News outlets must spend a great deal of space quoting police simply to supply the constant daily demand for items. Only official sources receive enough play to fully communicate their message, leading to a reproduction of official ideology.
Scraton et al. (1991) provide an analysis of media reporting on prison incidents in Scotland in the mid-1980's. Analogously to Hall et al. (1978), Scraton et al. describe the media as performing an "ideological role" that is "institutionally related to the definition, maintenance and reproduction of dominant social relations and power centres within society" (1991: 109). Scraton et al. admit that "what constitutes 'the media' is not homogeneous" but add "what remains consistent, whatever the medium, is the significance of sources of information". Prison authorities and other official sources are here again deemed" primary definers". Thus, in coverage of prison incidents, "journalists are compelled to rely heavily on official statements both at the prison and from elsewhere to compile substantial news stories".
There has been little previous attempt to draw together the literature on the social history of punishment and the literature on criminal justice and the news media. There is, however, a convergence between, firstly, accounts from penal historians that suggest that prison authorities maintain a strict clamp on public knowledge through veiling punishment, and, secondly, sociological analyses of the news arguing that official sources largely define media knowledge of prisons and other aspects of criminal justice.
Other recent work offers a contrasting view of journalist source relations. For example, Ericson, Baranek, and Chan (1987; 1989; 1991; Erieson 1991) offered research on news production on various beats in Toronto. They suggested that such relations are …
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Publication information: Article title: Breaking into Prison: News Sources and Correctional Institutions. Contributors: Doyle, Aaron - Author, Ericson, Richard V. - Author. Journal title: Canadian Journal of Criminology. Volume: 38. Issue: 2 Publication date: April 1996. Page number: 155+. © 1999 Canadian Criminal Justice Association. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
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