Media (In)Attention to Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice: The Problem of Decontextualization

Julie Lynn Globokar, University of Illinois at Chicago

A report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in April 2003 announced that the Nation's incarcerated population had surpassed 2 million people. Newspapers and magazines responded with articles that relayed both the general trends and more specific demographics described in the report, including the vastly disproportionate representation of African American and Hispanic males. This study examines the media's decontextualization of race in its coverage of incarceration rates and its potential impact on the public's perception of appropriate policy responses to the crime problem. A content analysis reveals that despite the relative consistency in reporting racial disparities in the system, very few news sources sought to explain the possible causes or impact of such a high incarceration rate among minority communities. This work goes beyond current literature regarding the media's role of framing criminal justice policy through media scares and moral panics, suggesting that the exclusions of media content are as vital to its messages as what is included. I conclude with suggestions regarding how the media can more responsibly frame the racial inequities of incarceration in ways that better inform the public on criminal justice policies.

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Updated 05/20/2006