Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Indictment: The News Media and the Criminal Justice System (Book Review)

Reviewed by Alex Friedmann

Indictment, a report by the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, presents a hard look at the shortcomings of crime coverage by the press. The authors, two experienced journalists, condemn simplistic reporting of complex criminal justice issues that all too often is a mile wide and a millimeter in depth.

The growing trend among the news media is excessive, sensationalistic crime coverage that sidesteps discussion of effective solutions to crime and alternative approaches to punishment. Newspapers and T.V. news frequently are deluged with stories of murder and mayhem despite recent declines in crime. For example, while the national homicide rate has fallen by 20% since 1990 the number of murder reports on network newscasts has soared by almost 60% over the same time period.

Indictment notes that lopsided coverage of crime is at least partly attributable to the fact that the news media is a business, the public is a consumer, and crime reporting is profitable because it generates higher ratings. Crime sells and the press panders to people's apparent desire for "if it bleeds it leads"-style news coverage.

Using examples from today's headlines, Indictment presents compelling evidence that, to a large extent, the media has abdicated its responsibility to provide balanced and meaningful coverage of criminal justice issues. The result is a misinformed public with erroneous perceptions and an exaggerated fear of crime, which sets the stage for lawmakers to step forward with get tough "solutions" that may exacerbate the underlying problems.

Although not an in-depth examination, Indictment provides an overview of a variety of deficiencies in media reporting of crime and corrections-related topics. The report briefly discusses news coverage in relation to racial disparities in the criminal justice system, mandatory minimums and other sentencing issues, and widespread ignorance of legal procedures and court rulings among journalists. Particular attention is paid to cameras in the courtroom and methods of judicial election/selection.

Indictment is an excellent primer on the exploitative relationship between the media and the criminal justice system, and a copy belongs on every news desk in the nation as a reminder of the civic and social responsibility that a free press has to the public. Single copies of the report can be ordered at no cost from The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, Attn: Publications, 1207 18th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37212 (615) 321-9588.

A separate report by the Freedom Forum, Covering Crime, Courts and, Corrections, picks up where Indictment leaves off. Covering Crime goes beyond identifying the major problems of criminal justice reporting to set forth extensive recommendations for improving crime coverage. The report presents the results of round-table discussions involving journalists, law enforcement officials and community members.

Covering Crime is useful as a resource guide and educational tool for members of the news media; it can be ordered from the Freedom Forum Pacific Coast Center, One Market Street, Stuart Tower 21st Fl., San Francisco, CA 94105 (415) 281-0900.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login