Media Coverage of the Death Penalty

Research on the media representation of crime has shown that it is consistently serious violent crime which attracts the most column inches or airtime.

Media researchers have suggested that media content is largely governed by ‘news values’; these can be defined as features of an event that make it more likely to be covered by the news media.

Galtung and Ruge (1973) said that news content was largely dictated by news values such as:

  • frequency
  • immediacy
  • whether an event was dramatic, unambiguous, and culturally proximate (‘close to home’)
  • negativity
  • elite involvement
  • human interest

Serious crime satisfies these news values. In addition, high-profile murders, and the investigation and trials which follow, can satisfy the news value of ‘continuity’, providing an ongoing news story with which readers and viewers are already familiar.

Through application of this framework, it is clear that serious violent crime is a common media staple because it satisfies news values.

In addition to this skewing for the most serious crimes, research has also shown that media framing can also influence policy, and political reactions to crime. Although less research has been conducted specifically on the media coverage of the death penalty, there is some research which has shown that media coverage of the death penalty is incredibly influential.

Susan Bandes (2004) has written that ‘Law and Media exist in a complex feedback loop.’ As a lot of people have no direct experience of the criminal justice system, the media becomes the means by which they understand how it operates, either through factual programmes such as news bulletins and newspapers, or through fictional representations.

As a result, Bandes notes that:

the media create and feed on fears and passions about crime  that are not well linked to reality, and these fears and passions have often led to solutions poorly tailored to address the most pressing challenges of crime control and adjudication.

There is therefore a strong argument for a link between media representation of the death penalty, public opinion, and criminal justice policy on the issue.

Writing in The Washington Post, Danny Hayes of George Washington University, pointed to ‘the erosion of public support for the death penalty’ across the US. Hayes wrote that two decades of debate had concentrated on wrongful convictions and death row exonerations, ensuring that many Americans were now conflicted and aware of the potential unfairness of the death penalty.

Hayes was drawing on recent research from Frank Baumgartner, Suzanna Linn and Amber Boydstun (2008) which demonstrated that how an issue was ‘framed’ in the media could have huge impacts on public opinion.

Baumgartner et al write that the ‘innocence frame’ was a relatively new way of presenting discussion of capital punishment within the media. While the death penalty had traditionally been discussed in relation to constitutionality and morality, in the 1990s the question of error in the criminal justice system offered a new way to think about the death penalty. The prevalence of the ‘innocence frame’ since the 1990s has resulted in ‘a marked shift in aggregate public opinion’, in jury decision-making in capital trials, and in the number of persons executed. Additionally, the ‘innocence frame’ led to the establishing of ‘innocence projects’ in schools and universities across the US, which discovered yet more evidence of innocents on death row.

Baumgartner et al (2008) therefore concluded that: ‘Media framing in the case of the death penalty has a profound influence on public policy’.

However, Bandes (2004) has argued that outside of the ‘innocence frame’, there are few condemned prisoners who offer the media an opportunity for sympathetic portrayals. When guilt is not in doubt, but merely the sentence, there is less scope for nuance in reporting. Citing the case of Karla Faye Tucker, executed in 1998, Bandes writes of how rare ‘such crowd-pleasing personae are on death row.’

Bandes therefore concludes that the media is often simply incapable of conveying the complexity of capital punishment, including the difficult legal arguments and procedural issues, and of appealing for humanity in cases where guilt is not in doubt.


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