News & BlogHow journalists can better report on criminal justice
How journalists can better report on criminal justice
18th November 2021
By Jamie Morrell, Communications and Engagement Officer at the CJA
The criminal justice system operates largely behind closed doors. Many 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, public understanding of criminal justice remains low. 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. Sentencing Council research in 2019 echoed these findings.
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. It is within this context that the media have an important responsibility to ensure the public have accurate information on the nature of crime and justice.
There is a movement of journalists reporting on criminal justice sensitively and constructively
We 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.
Throughout the report, we highlight several examples of good practice which other journalists can draw on.
There is a negativity bias across the media
However, charities and academics told us that 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.
We recommend that journalists endeavour to focus on rigorously investigating the solutions to crime rather than just the problem. News organisations should consider launching solutions-focused initiatives, similar to the Guardian’s Upside or the New York Times’ Fixes section, investigating the effectiveness of different solutions to crime and reoffending. 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.
We also highlight that sensationalist headlines are negatively impacting public understanding. Sensationalist headlines are concerning because, as evidence from Ofcom suggests, 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. In the report we make a series of recommendations in this area. Journalists should only include details about someone’s offence when strictly relevant and following an open conversation with the individual about this. They should also allow people with lived experience to review articles or footage which tells their story before it is published.
There are many people with personal experience of the criminal justice system who go on to work in the criminal justice sector, supporting others and campaigning for change. The CJA’s Change from Within report highlighted that people with lived experience often bring fresh thinking to key challenges within criminal justice. We suggest that journalists ask people with lived experience for their views on what could improve the criminal justice system and highlight their skills, aspirations and potential, rather than simply focusing on their past. We also recommend 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.
This report scopes some of the key issues within the media’s reporting of criminal justice. We welcome conversations with journalists and publications on our findings and ideas. We plan to work closely with journalists, news organisations and journalism bodies to produce some practical guidance on reporting on criminal justice, while continuing to highlight the shining examples of good practice through our annual Media Awards.