Frameworks of Misunderstanding:
Capital Punishment and the American Media
Crime-related issues…are socially and politically constructed;
they acquire their meaning through interpretive, representational,
and political processes.
—Katherine Beckett, Making Crime Pay: Law and Order in
Contemporary American Politics (1997)
This chapter develops a theme that serves as an important backdrop for the chapters that follow: namely, that the mass media in our society play a central role in the creation of erroneous beliefs and preconceptions about crime and punishment that have real consequences for death penalty policies and practices. Given the ubiquity and power of the mass media in American society, it has become difficult to intelligently analyze any important public policy issue without some reflection on the potential influence of the media.1 As members of the public formulate their views of the death penalty—in their roles as citizens, voters, and jurors—they are especially likely to be affected by media messages about violent crime and capital punishment. This chapter explores some of the dimensions of that influence and sets the stage for the more data-based chapters that follow. It is admittedly more impressionistic than my subsequent discussion of the system of death sentencing, but it is no less important.
No matter which form of media they prefer, American audiences are immersed in crime-related themes and stories. Crime dominates the newspapers and airwaves, and its dominance is long-standing. Because ""t"he mass media always are on the alert for dramatic, personalized stories that will command public attention,"2 crime has been a prominent feature in both print and electronic news and drama. In fact, crime is the single most popular story