Skip to main content

How journalists can better report on criminal justice

Criminal justice reporting

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.

In the recent months, the CJA has been speaking to journalists, charities, academics and people with lived experience to explore how the media can report on criminal justice in a more nuanced, sensitive and constructive way. Our new report, Behind closed doors: How journalists can better shine a light on criminal justice for a more informed public, draws together these insights and provides a range of ideas and suggestions for journalists, news organisations, policy makers, charities and funders.

Here are some of our key findings.

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.

The tendency for reporters to focus on the negatives can lead to feelings of apathy and fatalism. Research by Baden, McIntyre and Homberg found that ‘catastrophically framed’ stories reduce intentions in readers to take positive action to address issues. The negativity bias may also be leading to audiences switching off from the news. Research from the Reuters Institute has found Britons are increasingly avoiding the news, mainly due to the negative impact it has on their mood.

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.

What’s next?

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.

Read Behind closed doors: How journalists can better shine a light on criminal justice for a more informed public.