Chapter 9: Media Ethics and Criminal Justice


Influence of the Media

The influence of the media cannot be doubted.

Numerous studies have shown that most people gain their knowledge of events from the media.

News by the media is a critical element in forming and modeling public opinion on most topics, including criminal justice.

Silverstone (2007: 7) suggests that the worldwide media, in an age of globalization, constitute a “site for the construction of a moral order.”

The media decides what is ‘newsworthy’ and crime ranks high on that scale.

Influence of the Media

Jewkes (2011: 41) explains that the media version of reality is determined by two factors: the mediated portrayal of reality fashioned by the news production processes; and by agenda-setting, that is, media professionals assumptions about their audience that causes them to select some items as newsworthy and others not and determines how a story is framed.

Influence of the Media

Surette (2011: 25) notes that in modern society the mediated crime event displaces the actual event and the vicarious pleasure of reading about crime from a place of safety and security is far preferable to being victimized.

With media assistance, MADD succeeded in characterizing drunk drivers as a new menace to society for whom laws had to be made tougher.

Influence of the Media

Programs like CSI influence juror expectations about evidence.

Juror expectations of the evidence that will be presented at trial are shaped by multiple exposures to CSI programming to the extent that forensic evidence becomes reified and cannot be questioned (p. 95).

The legal system is depicted as an obstacle to crime fighting with complex procedures and trials and dramatic adversarial contests.

In reality, there is little drama, few accused actually go to trial, and unexciting plea bargains are the norm (p. 106).

Influence of the Media

The issue of limits to the freedom of the media is determined by competing moral rights – that media freedom is constrained by the rights of others.

Thus media freedom may be overridden by the competing moral right not to be defamed or by other rights.

Influence of the Media

Klaidman and Beauchamp take the view that journalists ought to make the necessary ethical decisions themselves instead of adopting the approach that a journalist or broadcaster has absolute freedom to publish anything unless the courts rule otherwise (1987: 12).

Virtuous traits are critical in a profession where stories are often produced in haste and under pressure of events.


The Influence of the Media

Cultivating moral virtues ought to be an ongoing process within the media so that fundamental virtues are embedded and operationalized in stress situations.

“The virtuous journalist” has the following virtues: truth, avoiding bias, avoiding harm, serving the public, maintaining trust, escaping manipulation and inviting criticism and being accountable.

The Influence of the Media

Specific competence relates to a specific context and a defined task (1987: 24).

Responsibility (for example, in the use of sources of information) and competence are linked together.

Incompetence may be the outcome of a moral failure of responsibility rather than a lack of skill.

Reporting the Truth

Reporting the truth to the public is fundamental to the role of the media in society and a moral responsibility of the media.

However, the concept of the truth in journalism is not unproblematic.

Reporting the Truth

Klaidman and Beauchamp (1987: 32-50) argue that in covering stories where the public’s right to know is a determining factor, stories should

Be substantially complete

Encourage an objective understanding

Be balanced and accurate

Reporting the Truth

There is a common perception that most crime is committed by blacks and it is true that blacks are disproportionately involved in crime.

The War on Drugs did much to strengthen this association.

The image of the black male as criminal is now so deeply embedded that alleged victims utilize the persona to enhance fabricated accounts of crimes:

Law of Opposites

The nature of crime, criminals and victims portrayed in the media is generally the complete opposite of the pattern shown through official crime statistics or victim surveys.

News-making Criminology

Aims to

demystify images of crime and punishment

affect public attitudes about crime and bring about a public policy based on structural and historical analyses of institutional development

allow criminologists to deploy their knowledge and be credible voices in public policy making on crime

call on criminologists to develop the necessary media skills to participate in dialogues on crime and justice.


Reporting the Truth

The media has been accused of perpetuating the image of the “ideal victim” by focusing attention only on victims who meet that standard of victimhood (De Mesmaeker 2010).

Media accounts that engender moral panics amplify deviance and function as advocacy for greater levels of social control

Reporting the Truth

The media tend to deal in what Jewkes (2011: 49) calls “binary oppositions”, that is, to present events as choices between good and evil, guilt and innocence, and deviant, dangerous or sick as opposed to normal.

Fear of crime and fear of being victimized by crime are key influences in criminal justice policy making and in the promotion of punitive policies.

Avoiding Bias

Partisanship will only equate to bias in cases where the underlying partisan values distort a story.

News is constructed by the media who decide what is “newsworthy.”

Media representations of police using lethal force undoubtedly influence public perceptions of the police.

Avoiding Bias

The media often employ euphemisms which are designed to minimize or play down the harm caused by police.

Hirschfield and Simon (2010) contend that the media stereotypically construct police as three types: Professional ,Vigilante, and Oppressor.

Victims of police violence are treated less sympathetically by the media than other murder victims.

Avoiding Harm

The do no harm principle says “a person’s liberty may justifiably be restricted to prevent harm that that person’s actions would cause to others”.

The concerns of a journalist should include a concern for the public interest even when serving that interest results in harm to a public official.

As Archard (1998: 90) notes, a clear distinction must be drawn between a story being in the public interest and a story that interests the public.

Serving the Public

The historical account of press freedom in the U.S. reveals that in return for the special privileges granted to it, the media is expected to provide public benefit in the form of timely, relevant, accurate information that informs the public understanding.

Serving the public with news has shifted in meaning over time.

Serving the Public

Surette (2011: 19) defines infotainment as “the marketing of edited, highly formatted information about the world in entertainment media vehicles.”

Beginning from the late 1980s, crime related infotainment began to appear on television and the boundary between crime and entertainment dissolved.

Maintaining Trust

Truthfulness is fundamental to trust and is associated with fidelity and loyalty.

Surveys of media credibility report

almost every news organization/program had seen its credibility marks decline.

The major broadcast news outlets’ credibility rating ranged between only 22% and 24%.

The Wall Street Journal rated higher (22%) than the New York Times (18%) or USA Today (16%).



Media power is formidable in political, economic and social fields.

When media attempt, in hard news, to persuade using emotional rhetoric rather than fact this constitutes manipulation.

Manipulation is:

any intentional and successful influence of a person by noncoercively altering the actual choices available to the person or by non-persuasively altering the other’s perceptions of those choice.



The articulation between media, crime and ethics is complex and multifaceted.

The nexus between crime and newsworthiness is well established and the influence of the media in designating what counts as crime to the ordinary citizen promotes racial stereotypes and inverts the real and accurate representation of criminality.


The media fuels moral panics and public fear of crime and distorts policy making so that rational informed strategies are replaced by ad hoc populist responses.

In terms of its ethical responsibilities for reporting the truth, avoiding biases, avoiding harm, serving the public and maintaining trust in the field of crime, the media record is clearly imperfect.