The Criminal Justice System (CJS) is a branch of government that is responsible for the management of justice. It comprises institutions that propagate this agenda through the acts of prosecution or/and imprisonment. In the case of the United Kingdom, the CJS is a collective body formed by the police, the United Kingdom prison system, and the crown prosecution service. Media representation here specifically speaks of the picture portrayed of the system in media forms such as films and television. The occasional media reporting of the mistakes done by the CJS institution is a reoccurring theme in regions across the globe, which reflects on its gatekeeping skills. This essay seeks to ascertain the role of media. By doing so, an illustration of the representation of the institution as one that allows monitoring and censuring will be provided. This will be achieved through the content analysis of both qualitative and quantitative data obtained from media publications over the years. The information collected from this will consequently be analyzed through the theories of; media content, media production, and media effect.
The qualitative and quantitative illustration of the risk of crime as more serious than it is by the media portrays the CJS as inefficient (Courtauld, 2022). An increase in the risk of crime (as purported by the media) implies that the CJS is incompetent in its task to provide security to society. The media reporting of crimes has been labeled an ‘obsession’ because of the way it is done. This reflects society’s labeling of crime as explained by Courtauld (2022). According to Courtauld (2022), most libraries and bookstores are filled up with crime fiction books, comic magazines, or newspapers because of the wide reception such material gets. This observation reflects on the different activities, experiences, and emotions most individuals in the public find thrilling (Courtauld, 2022). Such a record of human behavior further explains the rationale behind the media’s choice of cases. For instance, Prieto and colleagues (2020), murder cases are considered newsworthy by most media houses because of the firmly grounded and long-standing societal typifications.
However, it has been argued that in the case of the media, much of its obsession is associated with its relationship with the CJS (Kania 2022). There is a need for this form of communication to occasionally report and display the mistakes the body of justice makes in law enforcement (Kania, 2022). This can further be illustrated by the fact that the media itself plays a significant role in agenda-setting when it comes to crime and deviance (Courtauld, 2022). Since this mode of communication can’t report every criminal case that occurs, it is important to note and understand their choice of cases and what informs it.
The content that comes out of media houses is greatly influenced by market demand. This market-driven treatment of crime reflects society’s perception of both the crime itself and the institution intended to safeguard society against it (the CJS) (Beale, 2006). As mentioned earlier, society is polarised and seems impressed by illegal activities. The idea of it is stereotypical and heightened by the moral panic theory (Joosse, 2018). Developed through the independent works of Max Weber and Stanley Cohen in the 1800s, the moral theory offers a more theoretical vision of moral reformation (Joosse, 2018).
This theory is based on an expression of concern and greatly relies on media reporting. It is a situation where an irrational form of fear spreads widely amongst the public, making them feel threatened and in need of protection (Falkof, 2020). The media creates a make-believe villain, mostly from a particular social group, and mobilizes the public against them. This creation of an antagonistic representation of a person or institution can come from exaggerated reporting of a criminal case or crime, mostly violence against another individual. Not only does the villain get demonized, but also the institution that failed to prevent them from doing wrong (Falkof, 2020). The media propagates this image of crime and in turn promotes the same perception of CJS (Walsh, 2020). As the public turns to these institutions for protection, it is realized that they are incompetent and unreliable further aggravating displeasure from civilians (Beale, 2006).
In the case of movies, Hollywood has consistently been reprimanded for its representation of the justice system, especially when dealing with black people. The most recent occurrence would be when one of the actors from the popular TV series Insecure drafted a letter to Hollywood where he pointed out the role this media was playing in criminalizing Black people and misrepresenting the legal system by glorifying police violence and corruption (Pautz, 2016). Consequently, the action of the media leads to demonizing the institution.
The media occasionally represents the CJS as an institution that lacks both efficiency and honesty as it carries out law enforcement. This reflects the relationship the two sectors have. This attribute defines the media as the gatekeeper to efficient service provision by the CJS (Kania, 2022). This also informs why some cases are over-reported by the media. Since the media already has a following from the public, its effect on how the same society views and understands this justice system is significant (Ghani, Wahab, Ghazali, and Azam, 2021). The CJS will have to work to resolve cases that have received a publication from the media, consequently making the media a significant influencer of the system’s dealings. Therefore, in the case of corruption cases, or any form of injustice carried out by the institution is greatly reported. This reality reflects the relationship between media institutions and the CJS, particularly in media production. Media’s production strategy is greatly dependent on the actions and dealings of the CJS because of what it considers as being newsworthy.
Media institutions frequently report ethically compromised justice sectors that are designed, at their core to curb corruption but end up being the perpetrators themselves. Through media production that is centered on corruption detection, the image of the CJS is displayed to the public. The Guardian’s reporting of a senior police officer who had been involved in major corruption cases in the 1970s is an example (Campbell, 2021). The reporting not only highlighted the existing corruption in the system but also showed the lengths the institution would go to conceal this mere fact. Despite its ancient context, this action by this senior officer still bares on today’s dealings because of the consistent action by the system to cover up the corruption (Campbell 2021). Extensive coverage of a major weakness in the justice system was demonstrated during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 (United Nations, 2022). The protests erupted after a police officer in the United States of America was recorded assaulting a black man who later died of complications from that encounter (McCoy, 2020). The video indicated a complete disregard for human suffering, and in this case, a black man’s plea to be allowed to breathe (McCoy, 2020). The incident placed the criminal justice systems in America, Europe, and around the world in the limelight and represented them from a critical angle.
The media’s extensive coverage of the Black Lives Matter incident in America and around the world led people to start questioning the systemic racism that had been existing in the CJS throughout history. The digital media constantly displayed the video where the officer had his knee on the neck of the black man who was then laying on the ground (McCoy, 2020). His constant and continuous request to be let breathe echoed through left-wing media houses, constantly reminding its viewers of the cruelty this man faced (Walker et al., 2021). It has been argued that the positive responses seen from this incident were because of the coverage it received from the media (McCoy, 2020). The conventional cable news, in conjunction with social media platforms, raised awareness about the incident right up until the accused man was indicted. Since then, positive reforms have been suggested by several countries that face the same level of discrimination to help lessen the burden systemic discrimination has on its victims (Walker et al., 2021). By doing so, the media demonstrated its gatekeeping skills by criticizing the rot that existed in the system.
Significant but independent cases have been recorded where the media has represented the CJS in a manner that does not paint it as the villain institution or one that is corrupted, racist, sexist, homophobic, or any other form of discrimination it participates in. The media’s relationship with the CJS is not always belligerent. Nonetheless, this can only be spoken of for a singular aspect of the entire CJS institution, the judiciary. The judiciary and the media share a fundamental principle that establishes both their institutions (Ranjan, 2015). Ranjan (2015) describes it as their ability to notably impact the democracy of a region. This effect is bipotential, nonetheless, implying that they both can either intensify and strengthen democracy, or they can both drain its influence and render it useless (Ranjan, 2015). This informs the position media takes up as an aspect of a government.
The shared fundamental principle also explains the presence of media in courts. The presence of media in courts has reflected the level of accountability a state is intending to take to demonstrate honesty and transparency (Tretyakova et al., 2018). According to Tretyakova et al., (2018), the coexistence of these twin institutions is crucial for the survival of the authority of justice in society. The media houses take this opportunity and intensively report on cases that go on through the system (Garcia-Blanco and Bennett, 2018). As a ripple effect, this action creates awareness of the functionality of the system (Garcia-Blanco and Bennett, 2018). It also brings about the concept of trial by media. Here, more pressure is mounted on the CJS by the media’s creation of a widespread perception of innocence or guilt before/after a verdict is given in
a court of law (Krishnan, 2018). Aside from reporting on the daily proceedings of the court, the media’s vast coverage of important court cases and consequently the celebrations that result from them represent the successes and integrity of the judicial system (Garcia-Blanco and Bennett, 2018). By doing so, this form of communication portrays the judiciary as the most integral institution of the CJS (Serra, 2022). Correspondingly, the public quickly responds to this and acts in favor of the judicial system. Significant milestones achieved through court hearings
In summary, the question of whether the media represents the Criminal Justice System exclusively as a successful institution or rather leaves space for both monitoring and criticism is answered through the discussion in this essay. In most cases, the media portrays the criminal justice system from a critical point of view. This thesis is verified through the analysis of media content, production, and effect. It is observed that the media is considered the ‘gatekeeper’ of integrity because of its monitoring and scrutiny of the dealings of the CJS. The essay provides an example of an instance when the media represented the CJS as a successful and integral institution. This is seen to only happen when referring to the judicial system. From the above analysis, it can be concluded that the media acts more as a gatekeeper than it does as a cheerleader.
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