The News Media's Influence on Criminal Justice Policy: How Market-Driven News Promotes Punitiveness

By Beale, Sara Sun | William and Mary Law Review, November 2006 | Go to article overview

The News Media's Influence on Criminal Justice Policy: How Market-Driven News Promotes Punitiveness


Beale, Sara Sun, William and Mary Law Review


ABSTRACT

This Article argues that commercial pressures are determining the news media's contemporary treatment of crime and violence, and that the resulting coverage has played a major role in reshaping public opinion, and ultimately, criminal justice policy. The news media are not mirrors, simply reflecting events in society. Rather, media content is shaped by economic and marketing considerations that frequently override traditional journalistic criteria for newsworthiness. This Article explores local and national television's treatment of crime, where the extent and style of news stories about crime are being adjusted to meet perceived viewer demand and advertising strategies, which frequently emphasize particular demographic groups with a taste for violence. Newspapers also reflect a market-driven reshaping of style and content, resulting in a continuing emphasis on crime stories as a cost-effective means to grab readers' attention. This has all occurred despite more than a decade of sharply falling crime rates.

The Article also explores the accumulating social science evidence that the market-driven treatment of crime in the news media has the potential to skew American public opinion, increasing the support for various punitive policies such as mandatory minimums, longer sentences, and treating juveniles as adults. Through agenda setting and priming, media emphasis increases public concern about crime and makes it a more important criteria in assessing political leaders. Then, once the issue has been highlighted, the media's emphasis increases support for punitive policies, though the mechanisms through which this occurs are less well understood. This Article explores the evidence for the mechanisms of framing, increasing fear of crime, and instilling and reinforcing racial stereotypes and linking race to crime.

Although other factors, including distinctive features of American culture and the American political system, also play a role, this Article argues that the news media are having a significant and little-understood role in increasing support for punitive criminal justice policies. Because the news media is not the only influence on public opinion, this Article also considers how the news media interacts with other factors that shape public opinion regarding the criminal justice system.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION
I. THE PUNITIVE POLICIES OF THE END OF THE
     TWENTIETH CENTURY
     A. Sentences for Adult Criminals, Rates of Imprisonment
     B. Conditions of Incarceration, Treatment of Offenders
     C. Treatment of Juvenile Offenders
II.  CRIME RATES
III. A COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE
     A. Comparing Punitiveness
     B. Comparing International Crime Rates
     C. The Comparative Bottom Line
IV.  PUBLIC OPINION, PUNITIVENESS, POLITICS, AND
     THE NEWS MEDIA
     A. How the Media Portray Crime and the
        Criminal Justice System
        1. Network News
        2. Local News
        3. Newspapers
        4. New Media and Shifts in Media Choice
     B. How the Media Treatment of Crime Affects Public
        Opinion and Criminal Justice Policy
        1. Mechanisms that Increase Crime Salience
        2. Mechanisms that Produce Increased Punitiveness
            a. Framing
            b. Fear
            c. Racial Typification
        3. Different Groups, Different Media, and
            Different Settings
        4. What the Research Doesn't Tell Us
     C. It's Not All the Media
        1. American Culture
        2. American Politics
        3. The News Media Interact with
            Culture and Politics
CONCLUSION

INTRODUCTION

At the end of the twentieth century the criminal justice system in the United States underwent a major change, a shift toward more punitive policies, that has had a profound impact. Every U.S. jurisdiction adopted and implemented a wide range of harsher policies. In the federal system and in every state, sentences for adult offenders were substantially increased and in many instances made mandatory. …

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