Breaking into Prison: News Sources and Correctional Institutions

Article excerpt


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. …