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Mass Media and Crime - Conclusion

justice goals system resources

It is not always easy to define the ideal relationship between the media system and the criminal justice system. The goals and resources of the media do not mesh perfectly with those of prosecutors, defendants, judges, and police. The goals and resources that people possess as audiences and readers are different from the goals and resources those same people possess in other roles they play, as citizens, jurors, suspects, and consumers. The ongoing negotiation between the media, the justice system, and people in their various relevant roles produces the media effects observed in the research fields reviewed here (Ball-Rokeach). Many of these effects may be unintended or undesirable, but mitigating such effects as prejudicial pretrial publicity is often not possible without threatening goals that others consider paramount, such as press freedom or the desire of a prosecutor to try a case locally (i.e., avoiding a change of venue).

When goals are in conflict, and resources are scarce or fought over, the relative power of the parties to the conflict becomes the central issue. There is doubt that the ability of the media to influence the course of criminal justice is entirely legitimate or desirable, especially when that influence stems from the increasing dominance of the media's entertainment over its journalistic function. But the media are powerful enough to resist intrusive public policy and defend their resources (such as access to sources, control over their broadcast schedules, and use of information-gathering tactics such as hidden cameras). The justice system has powerful resources of its own to use to pursue its goals when they conflict with the media's. It is the public, particularly when the public is atomized, whose goals are least likely to receive support and benefit from rich resources when they are threatened by the goals of the media or the justice system. As Potter and Warren point out in their discussion of policies regarding the regulation of sex and violence on television, the political influence of the broadcasting industry allows the media to tie up regulators over definitional issues (What is sex? What is violence?), rendering public policy to limit such content ineffective.

We began and ended the twentieth century with a nervous tension of conflict and cooperation between the media and criminal justice systems. In nontotalitarian societies this tension is unavoidable as the goals and interests of these systems differ. A question for the twenty-first century is whether the delicate balance of power between these players will give way. A major concern is the trendline of increasing distrust of major social institutions, especially when combined with an apparent decline in the strength of commitment to civic society (Putnam, 1995). In other words, the relationship between the media and criminal justice systems is a dynamic one that reflects changes in the larger social and political environment where conceptions of justice and community are formed. For the criminal justice system to have legitimacy for its just administration of the criminal law and for the media system to have legitimacy for its contributions to civil society, each must be regarded as playing vital roles in furtherance of a democratic order that commands the allegiance of its citizens. In short, justice must remain part of the crime story, whether told by the criminal justice system or by the media.

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