U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Crime, Punishment and the Press

NCJ Number
M Jones
Date Published
This monograph examines the distortion of crime and criminal justice by the mass media through a 1978 survey of English press coverage of the alleged killing of an old woman by two young boys, a government review of the penalty structure, and a newspaper series on violent crime.
In order to assess the media's conduct in England, the study surveyed seven morning papers which circulate throughout England and Wales. Three are considered quality papers, while four are called tabloids. Following a brief summary of the characteristics of the English press, this study discusses a story which appeared in the May 16 papers stating that an 84-year old widow had been found dead in her home after having been beaten with a brick and abused by two boys aged 4 and 6. Since the children were under the age of criminal responsibility, no charges could be made and no names released. Headlines and excerpts from articles demonstrate how the newspapers exaggerated the violent aspects of the case, provided information that helped identify the children, and promoted public support for harsh punishment. When police revealed that the woman had not been abused and struck once by a half brick, possibly by accident, only 'The Times' printed this information. Press reaction to the Home Secretary's Advisory Council on the Penal System report on prison sentences is then reviewed. This document proposed alterations in the traditional system that could have reduced average prison sentences and expressed concern over the widespread use of life sentences for offenders convicted of nonhomicide crimes such as arson, rape, and robbery. The press's negative reaction which used terms such as 'a charter for rapists' effectively ruined the report's chances for instigating reform. Finally, the study recommends that the government cope with irrational public attitudes toward crime by supplying more information to the mass media, implementing its own public relations and education programs, and organizing public discussions on criminal justice policy. Over 50 footnotes are provided.