Media, Public Perception, and Crime

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Jeffrey Epstein, Casey Anthony, Bernie Madoff, Michael Peterson: the public remembers these names in infamy due to the attention paid them in the media more than for the actual crimes committed. In today’s zeitgeist, the media determine the crimes considered worthy of attention, and the public becomes the judge, jury, and executioner. White-collar and serious crimes such as homicide become the focus for two reasons; the heinous nature of the crime and or the shock of the suspected perpetrator being from a respected industry with a high education level. How do media attention and increasing public interest reposition how criminal justice is conducted and criminal policy is regulated?

The News Media’s Influence, a scholarly article in the William and Mary Law Review, suggests that criminal policy is being shaped by the media’s influence on public perception of crime. However, because the media does not mirror actual events but sensationalizes them for monetary gain, the author argues that the criminal justice system’s move towards punitive policies has done more harm than good. Violent crime rates in the United States have been falling consistently since 1990, though the atmosphere around crime today is much more fearful. In large part, the media’s focus on crime increases fears, though the actual crime rates don’t warrant it. In turn, there is no factual support for the policies pursued. However, due to the misrepresentation of crime by the media, public outcry cause politicians to make policy changes that directly impact criminal justice law.

Given the cultural setting and the constitutional right to free speech, how does media coverage change the way lawyers argue cases? According to Trying Cases in the Media: A Comparative Overview, one of the most significant benefits of free speech related to fair trials, is the natural “safeguard against miscarriages of justice.” Media attention holds lawyers and the legal process accountable to negligence in a construct created and managed by inherently flawed human beings. The media’s ability to act as a check and balance to the legal system is an ideal unique to the United States and a benefit to both the system itself and those who experience it. The criminal justice system is complicated, and the ethical, constitutional, and practical considerations around fair trials and the media are challenges that will continue to be evaluated and analyzed.

In the United States, we are encouraged to find a balance between dichotomous issues. The justice system itself should be held just as accountable as the people being judged by it. Therefore, the media and the public’s interaction with, shaping, and understanding of criminal law policy have positive and negative effects. As long as there continues to be discussion and critical thinking around the impact media has on the justice system, conducting and regulating law will be as fair as possible.

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