The criminal justice system and the mass media interact in various levels. In recent years, a majority of the public relies heavily on information from media sources in regards to various activities including proceedings in courts. As mass media continues to expand in the society due to advancements in information and communication technology and its evident illustration of democracy, so does its influence in the society. Currently, the mass media plays a vital role in shaping the opinions and attitudes of the society including the opinions of judges about cases in courts. The mass media has reincarnated itself as a “public court” which interferes with the activities of the court. The research argues the media has the ability to influence public opinion, which impacts judges’ evaluation and decisions in cases subsequently inspiring the judgments passed in courts.
Mass media is one of the core drivers of democracy, and a free press is indispensable in an effective democracy. The first amendment of the USA emphasizes the concept of freedom of expression which encompasses the freedom of the media (Sill, Metzgar, & Rouse, 2013). The USA is one of the most developed societies across the globe with a significant focus on the advantages associated with democracy. The rule of democracy emphasizes the participation of the people in all levels of governance as such illustrating the importance of an individual’s right to be informed. As the emphasis on democracy expands, so does the influence of the media which is perceived as the source of accurate information on political, economic, social and cultural activities prevailing in the community (Townsend, 2013). The mass media has an overarching desire to inform, educate, and entertain the members of the public. The ability of the press to describe activities in the society no matter how small and remote and make them meaningful is a reflection of the media’s influence. In recent years, many scholars in social and behavioral sciences acknowledge that mass media can influence the attitudes and opinions of a majority of the people in the society depending on their account of the events.
The general public relies heavily on the media as a means of understanding and assessing the criminal justice system and all activities the system participates in. However, the mass media often drives the narrative of the criminal justice system in general and the court proceeding in particular as they see fit (Philippe & Ouss, 2016). Currently, the mass media has assumed the role of a “public judge” and often judges suspects before and during the court proceedings as such influencing public opinions on the case and subsequently the judge’s evaluation and decisions (Salamone & Silverstain, 2011); (Supreme Court, 2005). While media coverage in cases is important in informing the public, most of the times the mass media ignores the gap between an accused and a convict and often overlooks the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” and “guilty beyond reasonable doubt.” There have been various cases in the society where the media was accused of conducting the trial and passing the verdict before the judges make the decision (Carrick, 2016); (Peterson, 2014). The trial process is an activity that should be carried out in court under the guidance of the judge. The trial in media is therefore undue and in most cases only works as an interference to the judge’s effort to deliver justice.
The process through which the media influence’s the judge’s evaluation and decision in a case occurs when the different media houses carry out their separate investigation about cases and proceed to build a public opinion about the accused before the appearance of the case in a court of law. Through building public opinion, the mass media prejudices the public and the judges. Moreover, when the public favors a particular outcome in a case, the judge may be forced to appease them without acknowledging all the rights and the liberties of the accused (Latarcia, 2014). The judges are pressured not to make the right decision but instead make a decision that is a statement for their families, co-workers, community and the society as a whole since they know they are being watched. As such, publicity often elevates judges verdict to a level that does not correspond to the available evidence (Berryessa, 2014); (Lim, Synder, & Stormberg, 2010). While too much publicity is often managed through the “administration of justice” by announcing the media’s contempt in court, the rules protecting journalistic conduct are often inadequate to support the rights and the liberties of the accused.
The research intends to analyze the role that the mass media plays in influencing judges’ evaluation and decision in various cases in the court. While traditionally the media played an important role as an avenue that voices the need of the society, currently the media is sensationalized, and the majority of the media houses are willing to do anything to increase their viewership or readership including distracting a fair trial (Capital Punishment in Context, n.d). As such from this account, it is evident that the media has an influence on the judges’ decisions in cases. It is paramount to investigate the nature of the mass media influence on the judges’ analysis and decision in efforts of supporting the effectiveness of the criminal justice system and the advantages it accords the public.
The purpose of this research is to investigate the influence of the mass media on the criminal justice system particularly on judges’ evaluation and decision on cases. The question the research intends to answer is “What influence does mass media have on judges when evaluating and deciding cases? The research question illustrates that the impact might be positive or negative and through various channels. Irrespective of the type of influence, it is clear that the media disrupts the nature of a fair trial. The paper hypothesizes that media adversely influence the judge’s perception of the case causing them to form an opinion about the case that is not reliant on the evidence presented in court as such negatively affecting the entire criminal justice system.
The study applies a qualitative research design since it focuses on the opinions of the judges on the role of the mass media on their decisions especially in cases that receive extensive publicity. The research process is reliant on two sources of information, the comparison of trials that took place when a majority of the media houses were covering the news with the case and trials that took place when the media coverage was on other issues. The target population was judges in one east coast state in the USA. A random sampling technique was used where judges across the state received a mail requesting their participation in a study that aimed at analyzing the effects of the mass media on cases verdict.
The researcher intended to capture the judges’ perceptions on the role of the media to establish its influence on the decisions of judges. The judges willing to participate in the study confirmed through sending a mail to affirm their contribution to the research. The researcher then proceeded to send a pre-developed research questionnaire that included both open-ended and close-ended with the decision to probe deeper into the judges’ perception of the role of the mass media on verdicts passed in court. The first page of the questionnaire assured the respondents that their participation was to be kept anonyms and their replies were to be used only for the research. The participants were requested to mail their responses upon completion for analysis and representation.
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