In the 1840s, cheap mass-marketed newspapers raised the relationship among the media, crime, and criminal justice to a new level. The intervening history has only strengthened the bonds, and comprehending the nature of the media, crime, and justice relationship has become necessary for understanding contemporary crime and criminal justice policies. The backward law of media crime and criminal justice content, where the rarest real-world events become the most common media content, continues to operate. In the 21st century, the media present backward snapshots of crime and justice in dramatic, reshaped, and marketed narrow slices of the world. Media portraits emphasize rare crimes like homicide, rare courtroom procedures like trials, rare forensic evidence, and rare correctional events like riots and escapes to present a heavily skewed, unrealistic picture. Significantly exacerbating this long-term tendency are new social media.
When the evolution of the media is examined, the trend has been toward the creation of a mediated experience that is indistinguishable from a real-world experience. Each step in the evolution of media brought the mediated experience and the actual personally experienced event closer. The world today is the most media-immersed age in history. The shift to new social media from the legacy media of the 20th century was a crucial turning point. The emergence of social media platforms has sped up what had been a slow evolutionary process. The technological ability of media to gather, recycle, and disseminate information has never been faster, and more crime-related media content is available to more people via more venues and in more formats than ever before.
In this new mediated world, everyone is wedded to media in some fashion. Whether through the Internet, television, movies, music, video games, or multipurpose social media devices, exposure to media content is ubiquitous. Media provide a broadly shared, common knowledge of society that is independent of occupation, education, ethnicity, and social class. The cumulative result of this ongoing media evolution is that society has become a multimedia environment where content, particularly images, is ubiquitous in the media. Mediated events blot out actual ones, so that media renditions often supplant and conflict with what actually happened. This trend is particularly powerful in crime and justice, where news, entertainment, and advertising combine with new media to construct a largely unchallenged mediated crime and criminal justice reality.
The most significant result is that, in this mediated reality, criminal justice policies are generated. What we believe about criminal justice and what we think ought to be done about crime are based on content that has been parsed, filtered, recast, and refined through electronic, digital, visually dominated, multimedia entities. Ironically, while the media are geared toward narrowcasting and the targeting of small, homogenous audiences, media content is constantly reformatted and looped to ultimately reach wide, multiple, and varied audiences.
In the end, the media’s criminal justice role cannot be ignored. Until the linkages between media, crime, and justice are acknowledged and better understood, myopic and punitive criminal justice policies will be the norm.