‘Criminal Justice and the Media’ Elevates Public Understanding of the Criminal Justice System (Insid

NACDL produced the three-part series titled "Criminal Justice and the Media" to foster responsible and insightful reporting on criminal justice issues.

Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.

Whether it is in the individual case or in the pursuit of fundamental reforms to the nation’s criminal justice system, the criminal defense advocate is in a constant struggle to overcome misconceptions, stereotypes and outright distortions. To elevate public understanding about how the nation’s massive criminal justice system actually operates, NACDL recently completed an extraordinary project. With support from the Foundation for Criminal Justice (FCJ) and the Park Foundation, NACDL produced Criminal Justice and the Media, a three-part tutorial aimed at journalists and journalism students designed to bridge the gulf between the reality of criminal justice and the pervasive misconceptions that distort public understanding. View the series at www.nacdl.org/coveringcriminaljustice.

Because the criminal justice system is the means by which government asserts its will over the individual, fostering responsible and insightful reporting on criminal justice issues necessarily is a core component of NACDL’s educational mission. Virtually every aspect of American life is either defined by or intersects with the criminal law. The nation has come a long way from the time when criminal law was merely the mechanism by which common wrongdoers — perpetrators of theft and violence — were brought to justice.

Criminal law is now an integral part of all aspects of American life. It is used to impose a vast network of social and regulatory controls over the people. It implicates many fundamental rights. For example, it can establish limits on free speech or gun ownership, and it defines when government search, surveillance, and seizure are permissible. In the final analysis, every societal choice — from the protection of the environment to the safeguarding of civil rights, from whether to ban abortion or limit the actions of abortion foes — eventually becomes a question of whether and how the criminal law will be used to enforce those choices.

As a nation with 2.2 million people in some form of detention in federal and state prisons and jails, the United States has the highest prison population in absolute numbers and per capita of any nation on earth. And with an estimate of more than 65 million people with some kind of criminal record, the criminal justice system casts an enormous shadow on American society.

For these reasons, it is critical that members of the public have a solid understanding of the criminal law and the constitutional principles that shape it. Democracy cannot long endure if the people are ill-informed about how the state employs the awesome power to prosecute and punish. A knowledgeable public must recognize and understand evolving criminal justice policies and the trials and appellate decisions that define the impact of those policies. It is only then that the public can determine the proper scope of its criminal justice system.

And there cannot be an informed public without journalists who truly understand the criminal justice system and how it operates. The women and men who every day report on crime policy, the trials and appellate decisions that result from those policies, and the impact of those policies on every person in this country bear a special responsibility to inform and educate the public.

Criminal Justice and the Media focuses on three core components of criminal justice and the media in America.

Part I looks at journalists who cover criminal justice policy — and how their work can be advanced by the network of public and private organizations that study the criminal justice system and its impact on society. These groups span the ideological spectrum and often are at the forefront of emerging trends. What is it about their work that attracts the attention of leading journalists? How do these reporters go about identifying trends and explaining the causes and impacts of various criminal justice policies? What kinds of sources do these journalists rely upon? How do they develop the story? How do they spot major national trends? What experts do they consult to validate hypotheses and explain potential consequences of various trends?

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Part II looks at the most visible and often least understood aspects of the criminal justice system — trials. How can journalists effectively cover a trial so that the public truly understands the legal and factual issues? How can they prevent either the parties in a case or outside interests from distorting the true issues in the trial? What role can and should journalists play to prevent the mischaracterization and misunderstanding that breed cynicism for the trial process and the justice system? Or conversely, how can they responsibly and accurately expose systemic flaws?

Part III focuses on a subtle but perhaps most important indicator of the direction that criminal justice policy will take: the appellate decision. How can journalists identify key appellate issues and effectively explain an often complex appellate process? How do they translate the key legal issues into terms that are readily understandable to the public? How do they effectively cover an appellate case and ultimately report and explain the real life consequences of those decisions?

Some of the finest journalists in the country participated in the series. Part I features a conversation between Gary Fields of the Wall Street Journal and Carrie Johnson of National Public Radio; both bring extensive experience covering criminal justice policy. In Part II, Associated Press reporter Linda Deutsch, the dean of journalists who cover criminal trials, discusses her illustrious career covering some of the most notorious trials of the past half-century. The final segment presents a conversation with two of the leading journalists covering the Supreme Court, Adam Liptak of the New York Times and David Savage of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.

This unique tutorial series will be distributed broadly to journalism and communications programs throughout the country, and is available without charge to the public. NACDL believes that it will help advance the goal of achieving a better informed public — one that is more keenly attuned to the nuances of the nation’s criminal justice system. An informed public is less likely to be misled by opportunistic politicians into supporting retrograde policies and better equipped to fulfill its constitutionally ordained role as a filter between the government and the accused.

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About the Author
Norman L. Reimer is NACDL’s Executive Director and Publisher of The Champion.