Media Influence On Wrongful Convictions

  • Words 2424
  • Pages 5
Download PDF

 In June, 1989, up and coming film director Spike Lee released his ground breaking, socially conscious and critically acclaimed film, Do the Right Thing. This film, in and of itself has as little to do with wrongful convictions as the classic American literature novel, turned into a movie, by Pulitzer Prize winner, Harper Lee’s 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird actually had to do with killing mockingbirds. I bring Do the Right Thing, because it was in 1989, when the criminal justice system’s hands were forced to do the right thing.

Gary Dotson was a 22 years old young man at the time he was convicted in 1979 he was found guilty of rape and aggravated kidnapping and was sentenced to 25-50 years. In 1985, Dotson found a ray of hope because the woman who accused him changed her story. This suddenly changed to elements of his conviction because her testimony was the evidence used against Dotson. There was no movement on his case at that time, but in 1989, DNA was used to prove his innocence. This was the beginning of an onslaught of DNA exoneration cases following the August 1989, non-ceremonial exoneration and release of Gary Dotson. However, this marked the first time that a conviction was had been overturned by this new and improved forensic method called deoxyribonucleic acid testing, or DNA. Surly, the evolution of this method, following this exoneration, began to garner media attention. No longer could the courts, prosecution or police shun the existence of potentially exculpatory biological evidence. The unintended connection created in 1989 was thanks to the Gary Doston case, the criminal justice system was forced to do the right thing and look at DNA evidence intently.

Click to get a unique essay

Our writers can write you a new plagiarism-free essay on any topic

This led us to the age of innocence and the movements across the world that has been responsible for the exonerations of the wrongfully accused. Since 1989, more than 2,310 individuals have been exonerated for crimes that they did not commit (National Registry of Exonerations, 2018), and over 160 people on death row have been exonerated since (Death Penalty Information Center). However, attention to wrongful convictions has a long history, beginning with Professor Edwin Borchard. This subject was broached in a published article regarding the European approach to unjust convictions (Borchard 1913). Many years later, Samuel Gross and Barbara O’Brien (2008) delved into our ignorance of false convictions, looking at frequency, causes, how do we study them and what we know about them. This study also looked into capital cases. Pursuant the United States Supreme Court ruling in Furman v. Georgia (1972), all existing death penalty convictions were reduced to life imprisonment as the death penalty was mired in biases against black defendants and was considered cruel and unusual punishment as it was being applied. This ruling required that states had to remove arbitrary and discriminatory effects to conform with the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The late 1960’s through 1970’s ushered in the era of heightened distrust for government. The Furman ruling was on the heels of an unjust war, civil rights, civil unrest, assassinations, political discourse and government corruption. It was during this time when citizens began to distrust information, giving rise to the proliferation of socially relevant and agenda-based media (Andrews, K & Caren, N 2010). It is important to know that media includes print, photography, cinema, and the more commonly identified modes of broadcasting, radio and television. In today’s society, media has evolved to new heights and modes never imagined. Modern day technology like personal computers, instant internet access, cellular phones, and other handheld portable devices used for connecting to news, information and people, has significantly changed how traditional media was used and the way society view media as a whole. Nayar (2010) points out that all media now have crossover capabilities, which means that they all work with one another. “Movies merge into computer games, and computer games generate fan sites, movie plots, and toys; advertisers use computer gameworlds . . . A cell phone serves as an email device . . . as a camera, a movie-making device, a conferencing facility, and a personal diary” (p. 2). Not only has media been reconfigured, but society is also reconfigured where “computer-mediated communication becomes the dominant form of social interaction” (p. 3).

This paper will attempt to address the following questions and: Does television and movies influence criminal case outcomes? What are the negative and positive effects of media on innocence? As previously defined, mass media has evolved to include new mediums from cellular phones through video games. For this paper, the focus will be primarily on the widely used forms of media; journalism, radio, television, cinema and social media.

Literature Review

This literature review provides information about the development of mass media and its connection with the innocence movement and wrongful conviction and how they have affected the awareness and policy. Because of the nature of the topic wrongful convictions, some of the literature reviewed will provide opposing outlooks of the effects caused by mass media as well as the racial components that have been driven my media awareness and/or media hysteria.

According to Golob (2017), the relationship between murder and mass media has been well established. The sensationalism of crime has always drawn the attention of the average person and the media has capitalized accordingly. Studies have shown a connection between mass media and legal consciousness and how perception can be swayed. The idea of innocence has been a staple in the media for many years. Conspiracy theories are given rise through media skepticism. These theories have been based on peoples everyday understands, experiences and perceptions, known as legal consciousness (2017). This consciousness is born out of the lens of race, culture and socioeconomic status, which tends to play a part in personal interactions with the law.

The impact of traditional mass media on legal consciousness was exemplified to a monumental level during the trial of O.J. Simpson. This case was coved by just about every form of media, including video games. This case exposed a social divide and depending which media outlet someone viewed, people relied on the media to fill in the gaps of the unknown, thus providing them with tremendous power of shaping public opinion. This is how some wrongful conviction cases are decided before voir dire (2017).

In the race for the best new scoop, media outlets have been known to haphazardly post information about ongoing trials, sometime reporting erroneous information (Policinski 2014). This was not always the case. In a time before the oversaturation of information, the media prided themselves on facts.

We are all too familiar with wrongful convictions based on government malfeasance, bad witnesses, evidence or defense counsel. Another less mention factor is journalistic influence (Greer, 1994). The media has found its way into the driver seat, especially in cases with high public profiles. The greater the depravity of a case, the greater the pressure from the media to find the culprit(s). This element gives rise to targeting specific populations as usual suspects. Mixing media pressure with vulnerable suspects and tunnel vision police and prosecutors, the outcome has shown itself, time after time, to result in wrongful convictions.

Baumgartner, Linn, and Boydstun, (2010) explored how media framing influence the decline of death penalty cases as well as on public policy. This framing is achieved through public opinion. The media has covered the death penalty from different angles, especially after Furman, whereas constitutionality of fairness in application was the main focus. After the rise of DNA exoneration, the 1990 ushering in area of concern, innocence. The prevailing question asked if the justice system could administer the death penalty without errors. The New York times ran thirty stories in 1996 concerning opinions and general news about the death penalty. By the year 2000, 235 had been published, most of them being critical of capital punishment, focusing on errors and wrongful executions (2010).

The media has been known to influence criminal justice policy through market-driven news, which promotes punitiveness according to Beale (2016). Crime and violence has always attracted views, thus the media is saturated with this form of programing, from entertainment to information through news coverage. Even as crime rates declined in 1990 and 1991, the major networks flooded the market with an average of 557 crime stories during their evening news. As this viewing audience responded favorably, the rest of the 90’s was filled with over 1,600 crime stories per year, but none as prolific as 1995, where the networks flood family dinner time with 2,574 crime stories (2016). Granted, the 1990’s gave O.J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers and JonBenet Ramsey, Rodney King, Lorena Bobbitt and Timothy McVeigh, so there was enough material provided for the media to sensationalize about crime.

In addition to the drastic increase in crime story reporting, the 1990’s network media conglomerates created a new phenomenon of Cracker Jack detective, forensic experts and conspiracy theorist with the saturation of investigative journalist programming and crime-based police/investigative shows. Dateline NBC, 20/20, First 48, Law & Order, CSI played a significant role in moving networks for hard news to entertainment (Beale 2016). Needless to say, this was all around the time of the “super-predator” and the 1994 Crime Bill. So, statistically, crime was on the decline; perceptionally, crime was out of control, which contributed to the exponential increase of the prison population and undoubtedly and great deal of wrongful convictions, driven by the media’s depiction and influence.

The impact of the media is not exclusive to the United States. There was a cross-sectional study of sentencing and the content of French evening television news. The study showed that sentences are heavier the day after reports of criminal activity stories. On the other hand, sentences are shorter after stories of miscarriages of justice. Obviously, the crime didn’t change, just the attitudes and reactions of those viewing the news stories (Philippe and Ouss, 2018).

The media has the ability to cast doubt on convictions, causing people to second guess the accuracy of the investigation. They have successfully caused law enforcement to reexamine cases to assure the correct person was convicted. This has become more prevalent as wrongful convictions have garnered more attention. Since exonerations are very present in the media, the justice system does not turn a blind eye to the possibility of a wrongful conviction (Greer 1994).

News media outlets have the distinct ability to influence the outlook on wrongful convictions. The most significant avenue is just by bringing attention to the cause. The media is also important in bringing forth the right people who could affect change. One of the lost arts of modern day media is investigative journalism. However, the media still has the ability to use their own resources to investigate to expose the flaws in wrongful convictions (Savage, Grieve and Poyser 2007).

Warden (2002) describe the role journalism has played in correcting the mistakes of the criminal justice system dating back to the Nineteenth Century. In modern day media, the roles are more omnipresent because mass media consumes our existence. However, the media are no longer relegated to emotional pleas when championing for innocence, especially since DNA testing has afforded the media to make more reliable claims of innocence. Also, in this day and age of instant information, technology expanded the media reach, whereas miscarriages of justice in small town America can have attention on the other side of the world, in real-time. This takes wrongful conviction cases from a local issues to world-wide concern.

As the world is being saturated with new forms of media, there has been a resurgence in the cultivation theory. This theory studies the long-term effects of television. ‘The primary proposition of cultivation theory states that the more time people spend ‘living’ in the television world, the more likely they are to believe social reality aligns with reality portrayed on television’ (Riddle, 2009). People’s perceptions and ideologies are influenced through television media. Social scientists have even looked into how the depiction of lawyers and criminal cases on screen have shaped how some see the legal system in reality. Further, even though wrongful conviction cases have been covered in movies, on television, and podcast, there have not been much to explain how these mediums affect viewers understanding of wrongful conviction (Golob, B 2017).

Just as the media has been instrumental in exposing the problem of wrongful convictions, it has also played a significant part in promoting the same. When the wrongfully convicted are exoneration, they are often still lumped into the same public perception category as the justly convicted. They are branded by the system as violent felons, often for alleged rape, robbery, and murders, supported by the media through coverage of the initial conviction (Owens & Griffiths 2011). The criminal stigma sticks with them and often time increases the likelihood of them being wrongfully accused of other crimes.

Though studies show in most cases, the exonerated looks favorably upon the media because in most case, the media supports them with positive press, there are case were the media serves as pawns of the criminal justice system and take a hardline stance against the exonerated. Understanding the influence of media on public perception,

Clow, et al. (2011) determined that a public apology to the wrongfully convicted from the government would serve as a benefit to help society understand that wrongful convictions are real and that the person being exonerated was just as much a victim as the victim of the original crime. A public apology, broadcast throughout mass media could relieve the exonerated from having to be the only voice in their support. This would also make society more welcoming, as most people are oblivious to factually innocent vs being released on a technicality. A public apology covered by media would cause the exonerated to have positive opinions about the media. Studies have shown that newly exonerated felt positive and more welcome in society when the media accurately depicts how they were granted innocence.

This phenomenon was put to the test in the case of Anthony Graves, an exoneree who spent fourteen years on death row (Vartkessian and Tyler, 2011). Not only did the District Attorney speak out in support of the exoneration, but a prosecutor hired specifically to re-try Graves, supported the DA that there was a wrongfully conviction. The local newspaper in Texas then played a significant role in helping Graves be accepted back into the community through social exoneration (2011). The media was instrumental in reminding the community the reason behind the release of Graves. The District Attorney’s office had accepted responsibility for the miscarriage of justice against Mr. Graves and the media told the story.   


We use cookies to give you the best experience possible. By continuing we’ll assume you board with our cookie policy.