Behind closed doors
The criminal justice system operates largely behind closed doors. Many people will never set foot in a police station, a courtroom or a prison. The media can play a vital role in shining a light on these unseen spaces, improving public understanding and showing what is and isn’t working in efforts to reduce crime. However, we know that much reporting on crime is sensationalist, inaccurate and, often, just plain wrong. The Criminal Justice Alliance has addressed this issue with a new publication: “Behind closed doors: How journalists can better shine a light on criminal justice for a more informed public”.
The CJA argues that public understanding of criminal justice remains low, point out that research from the Ministry of Justice in 2013 found ‘significant proportions of the public hold an inaccurate view of national crime trends and most people underestimated the severity of current sentencing practices.’ What’s more, this inaccurate view can lead to people calling for more punitive sentences.
Public attitudes on crime and criminal justice have an impact on the manifestos of political parties, the politicians that are elected, and the policy changes they enact. The CJA says that the media have an important responsibility to ensure the public have accurate information on the nature of crime and justice.
The report is based on interviews with journalists, charities, academics and people with lived experience which explored how the media can report on criminal justice in a more nuanced, sensitive and constructive way.
There is a movement of journalists reporting on criminal justice sensitively and constructively
The CJA found that there are several journalists who are doing an excellent job of illuminating criminal justice issues in their reporting. These journalists are spending lots of time in communities, building relationships and amplifying the voices of people who are often unseen and unheard. They are taking deep dives into the root causes of crime, rather than just reporting on the surface-level details of offences. They are challenging misperceptions and stereotypes while avoiding stigmatising terms and sensationalism; explaining complex criminal justice reports and policy announcements in clear and considered language; and holding powerful institutions to account. The report includes examples of best practice.
There is a negativity bias across the media
However, journalists too often focus on the problem of crime rather than solutions to crime. Audiences see instances of crime and violence repeatedly, and this leads them to believe crime is more common than it really is, which also impacts the government agenda.
The tendency for reporters to focus on the negatives can lead to feelings of apathy and fatalism. The report recommends that journalists endeavour to focus on rigorously investigating the solutions to crime rather than just the problem. The CJA says that charities also have a responsibility to ensure they are highlighting what works as well as what is broken in their communications.
Stigmatising language, sensationalist headlines and poor imagery
The language used to describe people with a conviction can have a far- reaching impact, disrupting them in their journey away from crime. The Prison and Probation Service warns against ‘using language and labels that confirm a criminal identity’ in official guidance, saying that ‘having a criminal record carries a huge stigma and limits opportunities for success and reinforcing this stigma isn’t helpful.’ Charities and people with lived experience said journalists should be mindful of terms which label such as ‘gang member’, ‘criminal’ and ‘offender.’ When featuring someone with lived experience in a piece, journalists should ask the individual how they would like to be referred to.
Sensationalist headlines are particularly concerning because audiences are increasingly consuming news by scanning headlines on social media, rarely clicking on links and reading articles to the end, meaning any nuanced reporting in the article is missed. Poor use of imagery is also a problem. Images of large knives typically used in stories about knife crime can invoke fear in audiences, whereas images of someone turned away from the camera with their hood pulled causes audiences to ‘other’ individuals.
People with lived experience want to engage with the media but frequently have negative experiences
Many people with lived experience of the criminal justice system — including people who have committed crimes, victims and their families — want to share their story, and journalists are often keen to interview such individuals. However, they regularly have negative experiences when dealing with the media. This is leading to some charities refusing to put individuals forward for interviews. The report makes a series of recommendations in this area including asking journalists to only include details about someone’s offence when strictly relevant and following an open conversation with the individual about this.
The report also recommends that news organisations review their recruitment processes for journalists to ensure there are no barriers to people with lived experience, and that they partner with charities to deliver paid internships and training schemes for these aspiring journalists.