Fear Factor: The Role of Media in Covering and Shaping the Death Penalty
13 Pages Posted: 4 Aug 2003 Last revised: 17 Mar 2017
Date Written: 2004
Substantial work has been done on media's coverage of crime, and particularly violent crime. However, very little work has been done on media's relationship to the death penalty, a topic that presents its own set of complex challenges. This article examines the feedback loop between law and media in the capital punishment context. It first discusses the ways in which the perceived requisites of the media, particularly television, shape coverage of capital punishment. These requisites include the need for immediate, discrete and filmic occurrences, the demand for official sources, and the influence of dramatic conventions like stars and villains, a clear moral, and definitive closure. The paper argues that media coverage governed by these requisites gives short shrift to problems of justice and fairness in individual capital cases, and pays even less attention to broader, systemic problems plaguing the American system of capital punishment. The paper then argues that the administration of the death penalty is, in turn, strongly influenced by the media at a number of crucial pressure points. The feedback loop is especially visible at the legislative juncture, when crime control policies are made; at the prosecutorial juncture, when discretion about capital charging is at work; and at the adjudicative juncture, when both judge and jury must make difficult decisions about sentencing.
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