The Media's Influence on the Criminal Justice System

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Release Date: 
Monday, July 29, 2019

Harri, NLADA's Strategic Advancement VISTA, recounts her experience at a seminar over media and the Criminal Justice System. It was really extraordinary to hear firsthand from LynNell Hancock and Norris West, two journalists who were reporting during the Central Park Jogger case, and Yousef Salaam, one of the Exonerated 5, about how media image is created and experienced. I think the fact the Central Park 5 were largely believed to be guilty despite the inconsistent evidence is a testament to how media image, stereotypes, and our preconceived notions can shape “reality”, and push us to believe what we want to believe. LynNell Hancock described the many different perspectives about the case that she encountered – some black reporters saw it as a story about race and tried to highlight the perspectives of the suspects and their defense, some radical feminists saw the case as one of the first few times violence against women was being taken seriously, and another reporter noticed that black and Latino kids were being banned from Central Park following the case and tried to highlight that.

However, the predominant narrative embraced by much of the news media was that of law enforcement – that the Central Park suspects were guilty, “wildin’” and part of a new breed of “super-predators”. Moreover, the “scoop” or breaking news culture of the press, the shocking nature of the crime with fit perfectly with racial and gender stereotypes, and a lack of diversity in the press undoubtedly obscured the minority voices in Central Park Jogger case. One of the things that Yousef Salaam said that really stuck with me is that 400 articles about the Central Park 5 were written in the first two weeks of the case, while their exoneration got relatively little attention. This is reflective of a severe lack of self-examination, and makes me wonder how different the outcome of the Central Park Jogger case would be if it happened today. Perhaps with DNA analysis, and the ability of social media to amplify minority voices, Yousef wouldn’t have been convicted. However, the same forces (and more) that led to the conviction of the Central Park 5 first in the court of public opinion and then the New York City courthouse still exist today: sensationalized news in the 24-hour news cycle, racist stereotypes/preconceived notions that shape how we view reality, the ability of social media to amplify hate speech, and extremely punitive criminal justice policies. Or, even if the Central Park Jogger case would be different today, I wonder what similar issues we might look back on in 20 or 30 years, in disbelief about how the media or our own stereotypes formed a harmful narrative.