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The media sensationalizes news which provokes confrontations, but too often ignores the actual statistics that should matter more. These cherry-picked media stories actually can make a case much bigger than it is, thrusting the victim and hunt for the perpetrator, if not already known, into a kind of mystery show that plays out in the news as long as there is new information and the public remains interested – until the next big crime story pushes it off the front pages.
Typically, as discussed by Paul Brakke, the author of American Justice?, these big stories have compelling victims where everyone can feel the horror of what happened to them. For example, they may be about a young girl or hiker killed by a rapist, the husband pushed off a cliff or out of a kayak by an angry wife, or the young girl who persuaded her boyfriend to kill himself in a truck. Such cases turn into tabloid fodder.
Sometimes these stories reveal some misconduct by police or prosecutors in pursuing the case and then turn into a call for justice. In a recent case, Steven Avery had been previously convicted and was then set free after DNA evidence revealed he wasn’t the killer and a witness had been wrongly pressured to identify him, despite major differences between her identification of the man who attacked her. He sued and won a judgment of $36 million against the police and city. One way to make the suit go away was to arrest him for something else, so police or prosecutors might have planted evidence to convict him, and now he is in prison while a new lawyer fights to free him. Brakke can really identify with such a story, since he saw first-hand how a determined prosecutor seeking victory can simply ignore the truth and use underhanded tactics to avoid seeking real justice. Is it any wonder the political system in our country is in dismal shape when so many politicians are former prosecutors?
Aside from racial tension between blacks and police, one other type of big story case now abounds. It includes the mass murders of a half-dozen or more people around the U.S. – the bigger the body count, the bigger the story. In some instance, the body count issue has triggered confrontation between gun rights advocates and those wanting to restrict assault weapons. Yet the body count in all cases of mass homicide is far eclipsed by the number of single homicides perpetrated in our gun-tolerant society, a fact rarely addressed by the media. In other instances, the mass killings have triggered a growing intolerance towards Muslim Americans, since the last two killers had a heritage from the Middle East, despite the fact that Muslim Americans have decried such killings.
As Brakke points out, these stories help to breed fear of the other and promote racial tensions between groups, when, in fact, most killings are due to conflicts with people one knows, and the statistics bear this out. For example, the majority of homicides occur between family members and between blacks killing other blacks. But the media plays up stories of the dangerous stranger, so fear spreads around the land.
So what is the solution to help reduce misleading accounts by the media and fearful impressions formed by the public? In writing American Justice?, Brakke has identified some key abuses by the media, which include making the defendant look guilty, notorious trial and pretrial publicity, racial bias, and criminal bias. He concludes the chapter with some suggestions on how to do it better. For example, the names of individuals charged with a crime should not be reported in the media. The media should not be permitted to report what they learn from prosecutors, unless they also have the defense attorney’s comments on that information. Reporters, publishers, and others who have produced incorrect or misleading stories should be required to do follow-up stories to make up for the false information that they have spread. They should also be required to further specify when they do not have actual facts in a case but are reporting rumors and social media musings. In short, the media needs to be held to higher standards of accuracy and civility, rather than sensationalizing cases to appeal to readers who want to be entertained rather than informed about the truth.
In his book, Brakke also examines other areas where the criminal justice system falls short, such as misbehavior by prosecutors and judges, who let their biases influence how the prosecute or judge a case. He has started a regular blog series on his website to promote a dialogue on these different issues with a view to improving the justice system.
Copies of the book are also available in PDF format to members of the press.
For more information, please contact:
- TouchPoint Press at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Paul Brakke directly at email@example.com
for questions about his experiences with the system.
- Contact Paul Brakke at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Gini Graham Scott at email@example.com
for questions about the system or the book’s relation to current events