News 09.24.08

Preventing wrongful convictions through better news reporting

What role does the media play in overseeing our criminal justice system? Could newsroom reforms prevent wrongful convictions and help police solve cold cases? Steve Weinberg, a journalism professor and author, thinks so.

In an article yesterday in Miller-McCune magazine, Weinberg presents a novel approach at reforming our criminal justice system. The news media, and the general public, have been skeptical of wrongful convictions for years, Weinberg writes, and the advent of DNA exonerations has changed this. As the media and the public realize that the system makes mistakes, pressure is applied to the system to make it more accountable. Weinberg writes that the reforms proposed by the Innocence Project, including recording of interrogations and improved identification procedures, are valid, but that a movement from within the media is necessary as well:

One solution for wrongful convictions, however, has not been explored in a sustained, meaningful manner. It is a solution that cannot be legislated or even come from the government. The solution requires writers and editors for newspapers, magazines, radio stations, television stations, Web sites and books to practice preventive journalism rather than after-the-conviction, too-late journalism.

Until and unless journalists improve their performance, far more innocent people will be imprisoned than the criminal justice system seems likely ever to acknowledge. The logical extension of the preceding statement seems obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: Unless journalists get better at covering the justice system, many criminals will continue to go unpunished, free to murder or rape or rob again. So investigating wrongful convictions is not — as perceived by too many police, prosecutors and judges — an assault by soft-on-crime bleeding hearts. Rather, it is an attempt to serve law and order, to improve the administration of justice and to foster faith in the criminal justice system.


Read the full story here

. (Miller-McCune Magazine, 09/23/08)

And an article by Jon Whiten in Extra! Magazine in late 2007 pointed out that coverage of DNA exonerations very rarely includes a reflection on the media’s role in convicting the innocent.

What is striking about all of the coverage…of wrongful conviction in general, is the lack of self-examination. The press, in detailing the reasons that such awful miscarriages of justice happen, never points to its own role as enabler.

As the press has repeatedly reported in the past decade, the accused don't always get a fair trial, and many have been convicted and sent to prison for crimes they did not commit. Doesn't it then make sense for journalists to report on the cops and the courts with that awareness in mind?

It is a welcome sign that the press extends its conscience enough to report quite often on wrongful convictions, exonerations and the flaws with the criminal justice system. But the press needs to take responsibility and think about these lessons when doing daily beat reporting on crime and trials.


Read the full story here

. (Extra!, November/December 2007)

 

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