To what extent do the media influence perceptions of African Americans in the criminal justice system in the US
“Stereotypes are not mysterious or arbitrary, but grounded in the observations of everyday life.” (Eagly, A. 2015, “How Do Stereotypes Form and Can They Be Altered?”).
Stereotypes are integrated within everyday life due to media representation and personal experiences. On the least harmful part of the spectrum comes the stereotype surrounding high school drop outs. The idea that they are less educated and incapable of holding a job worthy of suitable pay, simply because they decided to discontinue their education; however, on a greater scale, media representation has “consistently overhyped the link between black families and criminality” (Mohdin, A. ,2017, “The media ends up racializing poverty by presenting a distorted image of black families”). For this reason, the focus of this dissertation will be to find to what extent the media influence perceptions of African Americans in the criminal justice system in the US.
This is a relevant topic because as of recent years, the talks of racism have seemed to grow more volatile in the United States of America, with many African American people feeling as though they are not being granted fair treatment by the very services put in place to protect them (Bordua and Tifft 1971). African Americans occupy a mere 12.3% of the entire American population, but 40% of the US prison population (Wikipedia) and many believe it is down to the media’s portrayal of black people and other minority races, which has led to a clear systematic divide in society. People born into these families are brought up to view the police as “a visible sign of majority domination” as stated by Ronald Weitzer (2004). The police force has become a symbol of oppression and domination to these people. As a result of this, they are more likely to leave an encounter with the police feeling upset or angry (Bordua and Tifft 1971), and also feel that they have not received procedural justice from the officers, which lowers the overall opinion of the police within these communities (Tyler and Huo 2002).
Throughout this dissertation, the principle aim is to use current research and academic journals on the topic to conduct an analysis of the justice system in the US and arrive to a conclusion as to the importance/unimportance of the medias representation of black men and women in changing the attitudes of the enforcers of this justice system, such as judges, police officers, etc. I will be comparing the verdicts of three prominent trials in American history: The infamous trial of OJ Simpson, the wrongful imprisonment of John Bunn and finally the trial and treatment of Dylann Roof. There are many cases, which are very similar to the cases that will be examined; however, due to the scope of the research being too wide and therefore potentially impacting on the quality of analysis undertaken.
The effect of stereotypes
As previously stated, stereotypes are prevalent to today’s society and are very difficult to disband once an individual acquires them “Both entertainment and news media are powerful forces in creating and perpetuating negative cultural stereotypes, especially about racial and ethnic groups”. (Perception Institute, “Representation: Culture & Perception”) Living in the 21st Century west, people are constantly exposed to the media. It is more integrated into our way of living than ever before with 96.6% of people in the US and 95.5% of people in the UK all owning TVs in 2018, alongside the 62.8% of the worldwide population owning a mobile phone of some sort in 2016 with this number projected to grow to 67% in 2019 according to Statista. This vast audience gives advertisers and directors a large platform to convey messages about society and influence social change. This is evident more recently with Disney Channel making history by featuring an openly gay character in one of their storylines of the show “Andi Mack” to help normalise being homosexual and encourage children to be open with their sexuality. In the same way the hit film of 2018 “Black Panther”, similarly does the same thing by being the first superhero film to have an all-black cast. This is a positive depiction of black people as it puts black men and women in front of a large audience looking powerful and fighting for the forces of good rather than being depicted as sexually aggressive and unintelligent as seen in the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation”. This film is described to have revived the Ku Klux Klan, which had been dormant due to government suppression. The anti-black film along with the anti-immigration climate that was present in 1915 America, led the Klan to associate itself with the movie’s success and use it as a means of recruiting potential members by depicting themselves as saviours of the country and protectors of the nation from foreigners. (History.com, “How ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Revived the Ku Klux Klan”.)
In order to understand the effect of such stereotypes presented in these movies and the negative attitudes towards minority races, it is worth defining what racism actually is. The Oxford dictionary defines racism as “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior” or “The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.” Through the poor representation of black people in movies such as “The Birth of a Nation”, racist views are passed on through generations, which have detrimental consequences when the people, who hold these views of minority races, are in positions of power, such as police officers, judges and parole officers. These people, alongside many others, are misled into believing that these ethnic minorities are threatening and act in a manner that is portrayed by the media, which could potentially be the reason for much of the systematic racism that is present in the US.
Review of Literature
Although stereotypes prove to be a contributing factor to why those of black origin tend to be treated worse by authority figures in society, it is not the only factor. There is currently an on-going debate regarding the state of the US judicial system and whether it is/is not in need of reformation. Reetu Mody (2014) states that “Our criminal justice system works exactly as designed. Its original purpose was to incarcerate poor men of color, which the criminal justice system does with painful intensity.” She then emphasises this point by stating that “Prosecutorial and jury bias means that 1 in 3 Black men will spend time in prison. In addition, the Sentencing Project in the Criminal Justice Primer found that Blacks serve the same amount of time in federal prison for drug offenses (58.7 months) as Whites serve for violent offenses”, through this source it is evident that the judicial system in America is seemingly stacking the odds against people of colour and intentionally in place to ensure that black men and women are behind bars. Mody makes reference to two controversial cases involving police murders of black men: The fatal choking of unarmed Eric Garner by Officer Panteleo and the murder of Michael Brown at the hands of Officer Darren Brown, who fired six shots at the unarmed 18 year old. These cases are clear examples of when the justice system has failed to do right by the family of the victims and has instead triggered outrage and riots by letting the police brutality go unpunished. However, the police officers were seemingly doing their jobs and cannot be fully at fault for having killed either of the black men. The depiction of black men is already an issue and the areas in which the officers were serving were regarded as dangerous (St Louis, Missouri, which is known for violence and conflict with police officers) (Staten Island, New York, which is known for its high crime rate.) Ronald Weitzer and Steven A. Tuch further reiterated Moby’s message by stating “For many whites, controlling crime is roughly equivalent to intensifying law enforcement against minority individuals or in minority communities. Whites’ identification with the police and perceptions of minorities can be linked to the group-position thesis”, essentially what both sources are making reference to is the broken judicial system that is still in operation to this day. The criminal justice system has seemingly stacked the odds against those living in poverty-striken conditions offering these people harsher sentences and treating them poorly when confronting them. Weitzer raises the interesting point surrounding “group-position thesis”, which essentially means that white people will more likely identify ethnic minorities as a threat to their ingroup and therefore hold negative attitudes towards them. An attack on the police force is indirectly an attack on their ingroup (Bayley and Mendelsohn 1969:200–4). “For white people to accept that minorities are mistreated would lend give credit to reforms that might dilute crime control, thereby threatening whites” (Ronald Weitzer and Steven A. Tuch, 2004).
On the other hand, Kenneth H. Clevenger completely disagrees with the statement referring to the judicial system as “broken”. Clevenger stated that “I am no apologist for America; I acknowledge our flaws and failings, but our judicial system is not a major defect in our society”. Clevenger believes that the judicial system regardless of its faults and failings is still a good system, but he makes some very plausible points and puts the blame onto the media for cultural and racial bias in cases where black people are on trial. Clevenger states that the judicial system has a rule of “innocent until proven guilty”, with its purpose “to protect against witchcraft hysteria, lynching, government oppression through police agencies and racial or cultural bias”. The media is the damaging factor that influences people into believing that people not yet convicted of a crime, but put on trial are guilty because of factors that wouldn’t have been taken into account in a court of law.
The wrongful imprisonment of John Bunn
One particular case where the media’s depiction of young black men in deprived areas cost a man his life, is the trial and imprisonment of John Bunn. At the young age of fourteen years old, Bunn was taken into questioning and was the main suspect in the murder of off-duty Rikers Island corrections officer, Rolando Neischer. The detective on the case was Louis Scarcella, a man, who was suspected of tampering with many of his cases to ensure that suspects were convicted (CNN). One of the officers Robert Crosson, who was present at the time of the shooting further identified Bunn as one of the perpetrators in the attack and he was later put on trial during the months that followed. Bunn faced twenty seven years in total for a crime he was later exonerated for in May 2018, after a review was conducted on the case, making him the 12th man to be exonerated of convictions related to investigations by Louis Scarcella. John Bunn’s case is only one of many, where black men’s lives have been taken away from them as a result of slight misidentification and false evidence, but there were many factors that influenced this case and triggered the unjust arrest of John Bunn. Firstly, John Bunn grew up in the Kingsborough Projects in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which is renowned for being extremely unsafe, even more so than New York. According to the neighborhoodscout.com, citizens in Brooklyn are two times more likely to be affected by a violent crime in their lifetime than those living in New York. The poor reputation of the area in which the alleged suspect was from, could have impacted the verdict of Bunn’s case, as to the jury he would have been seen as just another troubled boy coming from a deprived area, taking his envy to dangerous territory and murdering an innocent off-duty officer in a failed armed robbery.
In addition, Bunn also had very damning evidence against him, the eyewitness testimony of Officer Crosson, who was present at the scene where his partner Officer Neischer was murdered. Crosson identified Bunn during a police lineup and this was the main piece of evidence used to place Bunn alongside his accomplice at the crime scene and charge them with murder.
Furthermore, another factor in the imprisonment of John Bunn was the media’s coverage of black men at the time. The image portrayed of a man resonates with the viewers and this is evident through the rapid conclusion of John Bunn’s trial, ending all in just one day. Based on the time taken to come to a consensus, it is only right to assume that John Bunn was not given fair representation in that courtroom and he was already doomed to be convicted for a crime he did not commit even before he set foot inside. This can only be narrowed down to the prejudgments made by the jury based on criminal and poor depiction of black men and women. “In the US, black families represent 59% of the poor in the media, but make up just 27% of the poor of the general population, White families, on the other hand, represent 17% of the poor in media, but make up 66% of the poor across the country” (Mohdin, A. ,2017, “The media ends up racializing poverty by presenting a distorted image of black families”).
“The study conducted also concluded that the media overrepresented the link between black families and criminality and underrepresented it for white families. Researchers pointed out that black family members represented 37% of criminals in the media, but made up 26% of family members arrested for criminal activity, according to crime reports. White families members represented 28% of criminals in the media, but made up 77% of those arrested for criminal activity.” This source demonstrates how the overrepresentation of black people and criminal activity made it very possible for John Bunn to become a victim of stereotyping so grave that it deprived him of his childhood experiences and landed him in prison. On the other hand, it is also worth noting that although the source gives figures showing some alarming signs of negative representation in the media, it fails to take into account the percentages in relation to the amount of people of that certain race living in America, therefore making it seem as though the media is over representing black people and linking them to poverty and criminality and underrepresenting white people.
The OJ Simpson Trial
Another contrasting case to John Bunn’s case, which was infamous for the verdict, despite so much evidence being conjured up against the defendant. The trial in question is the infamous OJ Simpson trial. Orenthal James Simpson, who played for both the Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco 49ers, was a running back praised as one of the top 10 NFL running backs in league history and is claimed to have “dragged the Bills back to relevance” (Bleacher Report, NFL Nostalgia: Ranking the Best Running Backs in NFL History). In 1975, Simpson rushed (Rushing- when the running backs are running with the ball when starting from behind the line of scrimmage with the intention to catch the opposition off-guard gain more yards) for 2,003 yards in a 14-game season in, setting a league record, which to this day remains unbroken, he was a household name and was loved by the media for performing such feats; however on 12th June 1994 Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered and everything public perceptions on OJ began to change for the worse. OJ was arrested on June 17th 1994 following a televised car chase with the police. The trial began on 25th January 1995 and was often labelled “The trial of the century” (NY Times, “The O.J. Simpson Murder Trial, as Covered by The Times”) but this trial was also the first trial of the digital century and had a great online following with Compuserve gaining 2.6 million subscribers at the commencement of the trial (NY Times). “If you can’t arrange your schedule to watch all the trial coverage, we’ll have daily updates.” this quote taken from Compuserve emphasises just how important the trial was to the nation, “The reading of the final verdict was considered so momentous that students in local Los Angeles schools watched it live on television from their classrooms” (The Daily Jstor, O.J. Simpson: Media Spectacle Then and Now).
The trial of OJ Simpson was declared not guilty on October 3rd 1995 as the nation watched. Reactions were divided, mainly across racial lines (The Guardian, OJ Simpson: an eternal symbol of racial division – or has America moved on?) “In a 1995 CBS poll 76% of whites thought the former NFL star was guilty meanwhile just 22% of blacks thought so. Now 79% of whites and 41% of blacks think that. Around only 10% of whites and 39% of blacks think he is not guilty (The Guardian). This racial divide was played on as a tactic from the defendants legal team, OJ Simpson was in a courtroom with a predominantly African American jury and an overwhelming amount of evidence against him. After the legal team were able to successfully prove that the gloves present at the crime scene did not in fact belong to OJ in June 15th 1995. The famous lines uttered were “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit”, and this is a quote that resonated with the African American community throughout the duration of the trial. It was painted as a manhunt against another successful African American at the hands of a system put in place by white men, the lawyers clearly appealed to black people essentially stating that if they didn’t stand with OJ, then they were against the community and the prospering of another fellow black man. The ability to appeal to the jury and the rest of the nation comes as a result of media influence. OJ Simpson already had a great following, being recognised as one of the greatest running backs in history, so when people are given even a slight chance that he isn’t in fact guilty for the crimes he is being convicted/accused of then they will stand with him and show their support of his innocence.
The difference between John Bunn’s case and OJ Simpson’s case other than the overall verdict, is the media coverage the cases got when they were rife. OJ Simpson’s trial was very high profile, as he was an African American celebrity, the controversy that arose from this trial triggered many split decisions and the use of race as a motivator to stand by OJ made the defences statements in the courtroom seem very plausible and thus ensuring the release of OJ Simpson. However, John Bunn was a 14 year old illiterate African American boy, who was misidentified at a police line-up and had his whole life taken away from him after a one day trial. The mere fact that the trial was only one day long stands as evidence of where the justice system can fail to actually serve justice, how was Bunn meant to receive sufficient legal representation and defend himself before a jury all in the process of one day? Judge Simpson, who overturned Bunn’s second trial in 2018 and declared him a free man said “This case was tried . . . jury was picked, testimony was given and it concluded all in one day, I don’t consider that justice at all.’ This puts emphasis on the inequity that John Bunn experienced as a victim of a failing justice system and is just another example of an African American man experiencing injustice at the hand of the Justice System as previously mentioned by Reetu Moby (2014): “Our criminal justice system works exactly as designed. Its original purpose was to incarcerate poor men of color, which the criminal justice system does with painful intensity.”
Dylann Roof is an American, white supremacist, who was charged for the murder of 9 African American during a prayer service at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. More than 12 hours after Dylann fleed the scene the police were successful in apprehending him. The mass murderer was then given a bullet proof vest and treated to burger king, because he was hungry, meanwhile unarmed African Americans such as Antwon Rose, 17, are brutally murdered at the hands of police based on suspicions (USA Today Unarmed black teen shot, killed by police as he was running away in Pittsburgh). Dylann later confessed to the killings with pride and stated “I am just a sociopath” (Washington Post “I’m just a sociopath,” Dylann Roof declared after deadly church shooting rampage, court records say) he was later sentenced to death and is currently on death row.
Dylann Roof, OJ Simpson and John Bunn are 3 majorly different cases, one is of a poor, underrepresented, wrongly accused African American man, the second is of a legendary American football running back, who was put on trial and separated the nation and finally the latter is the gentle treatment of a white man, who murdered 9 people and was then treated to food by the police, but how different was the media’s involvement and coverage of all these cases?
Firstly, the John Bunn case received very little media coverage, it was merely a behind the scenes conviction that journalists didn’t necessarily care about since it was handled so quickly. John Bunn may not have necessarily been a victim of the media, but he was definitely a victim of racial prejudice, which came as a result of the medias representation of African Americans. This differs from OJ Simpson, who was given the maximum amount of media coverage a defendant could possibly receive. OJ Simpson’s reputation as one of the greatest sportsmen of his time definitely helped persuade people to side with him and go against the police. OJ’s case divided the nation and it was later revealed that the detective that filed the report against OJ, Detective Fuhrman, has had a history of racism and when questioned on the stand about whether he had ever falsified a report, he pled his Fifth Amendment right (NY Times, Detective Fuhrman Takes the Fifth). Finally Dylann Roof’s case remains the most peculiar of them all, especially in the current climate, where police brutality is rife in the US, Roof murdered 9 people in a church and fled the scene. After a 12 hour manhunt he was found and was gently apprehended by the police. The police ensured that he was protected by giving him a bullet proof vest and fed him Burger King, because he was hungry. The media’s coverage of Dylann Roof’s case was intensely negative and critical of the police force for their handling of matters when a white male was involved and shooting and killing unarmed black males. However, the reason why Dylan Roof was possibly treated more gently than other black criminals could come as a result of stereotyping and prejudice. The media, as previously mentioned, has been shown to greatly villainise black people, by over representing them as criminals in mainstream media compared to their white counterparts.
In conclusion it is evident that the media has a great influence over trials and the perceptions of people, which can therefore influence a jury into carrying prejudgements of a defendant; however, there are other factors that come into play, which have seemingly been ignored. It is worth considering the competence of the justice system in new era where everything is now online. The power of the justice system in undermined when journalists can post something online, which is capable of skewing the views of millions of people or influence a random jury to declare someone as guilty or innocent, not based on evidence gathered, but based on articles read outside of the courtroom. There would be a need for serious reform in order for defendants not to experience “Trial by media”.