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

Sara Sun Beale

Duke University School of Law

William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 48, pp. 397-418, 2006
Duke Law School Legal Studies Paper No. 148

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.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 86

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Date posted: February 22, 2007  

Suggested Citation

Beale, Sara Sun, The News Media's Influence on Criminal Justice Policy: How Market-Driven News Promotes Punitiveness. William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 48, pp. 397-418, 2006; Duke Law School Legal Studies Paper No. 148. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=964647

Contact Information

Sara Sun Beale (Contact Author)
Duke University School of Law ( email )
210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States
919-613-7091 (Phone)
919-613-7231 (Fax)
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