This story starts amidst the turmoil of the Vietnam War, when many Americans were educated by the graphic images on their television screens of wounded soldiers, thousands of miles away. In the 1970s, many iconic images of the time were defined by news media sources through repetitive coverage, allowing for the creation of themes that would later influence other outlets of media such as cinema and literature.
With unflinching photo and video accounts of U.S. presence in southeast Asia, the news media shaped this decade and the way its history would be told, and eventually allowed for massive social movements within America that would bring about the end of the Vietnam War.
The news media has the unique status in our society of deciding public knowledge by influencing public opinion. It is with news media that people construct their view of the world. As a result, those events which a person hears about most often become the ones that the same person will assume are most common.
This canon of stories form a representative heuristic, a collective consciousness that causes Americans to assume the issues most often described in the media are the most relevant to their everyday lives, even if they take place thousands of miles away, to people they will never meet. The theory of representative heuristics was developed by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in their 1972 paper “Subjective probability: a judgement of representativeness.”
Fast forward to our current historical moment, when mainstream news has an enduring effect on the public perception of crime and punishment. Americans elected Donald Trump who made apocalyptic rhetoric central to his platform before appointing Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. In May, Sessions released a memo ordering federal prosecutors to charge defendants with the most possible offenses which would result in the longest prison sentence.
Capitalizing on the anxieties of a constituency is the very nature of the modern politician in order to secure future voters’ ballots for them and their party. Newt Gingrich demonstrated how politicians capitalize on citizen’s fear of crime in an interview with CNN’s Alisyn Camerota. He said although liberals present data contrary to fear of skyrocketing crime rates, it is inconsistent with the experience of Republican voters.
“As a political candidate, I’ll go with the way people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians,” Gingrich said to Camerota.
A growing amount of research indicates mass media shifts the average American’s attitude toward crime and punishment. Watching 10 hours per week of television decreases the likelihood to support rehabilitation by 10 percent, according to “The Influence of Media on Penal Attitudes” by Jared S. Rosenberger and Valerie J. Callanan.
The same study reported watching the news one day per week more increases the support for punishment over rehabilitation by 5 percent.
Since 2007, over 2.2 million Americans were in the prison systems, making the United States the most incarcerated country per capita of the developed world, topping China and Russia.
Not only are Americans incarcerated at a much higher rate than other developed nations, but lawmakers are increasing punishment sentencing, as well as decreasing the rights of convicted felons after their jail time has been served.
In a 2012 study conducted by Jared S. Rosenberger and Valerie Callanan Ohio State University, subjects were asked what they believed the purpose of a sentence for a convicted criminal should be. The majority of subjects chose punishment, simply a negative and non-constructive scenario in which the culprit must suffer equal to their crime, at 37 percent. The remaining choices were rehabilitation at 24.5 percent, the preparation for the culprit to re-enter society, deterrence 14.5 percent, the prevention of future crime, and incarceration at 21.8 percent, the isolation of the culprit from society.
Public perception matters; it influences statewide legislature on voting day. This trend is concerning, as Americans increasingly favor restricting human rights of those who commit petty crimes like minor drug offences. Where could such a punitive view come from?
This problem now consists of two parts. The first question to ask is if these numbers are in response to an increase in crime within the country, or if there is another external factor that is affecting the rate at which people are incarcerated.
The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law reported the overall crime rate in the country has dropped “precipitously” from 1990 to 2016.
“While crime may fall in some years and rise in others, annual variations are not indicative of long-term trends. While murder rates have increased in some cities, this report finds no evidence that the hard-won public safety gains of the last two and a half decades are being reversed,” according to the center’s report.
For 2017, the center predicted the overall crime rate in 2017 will fall by 1.8 percent, according to their study of the country’s 30 largest cities. If their project is correct, 2017 will hold the second lowest crime rate since 1990.
However, hard data is not always important when it comes to sentencing. Juries are made of people, and people are malleable subjects to their environment, therefore the social environment of the time period is more crucial to understanding this increase than the real numbers.
In another GALLUP poll, every two years, subjects were asked if they believed that the crime rate had increased in this year over the last one. From 1989 to 1997 the number of Americans who believed that the crime rate had risen was over 71 percent. From 2003 to 2011 this number was above 53 percent.
In late 2001, this number dropped drastically, and the number of people who believed the crime rate had fallen were instead higher than those who believed it had risen, at 43 percent and 42 percent respectively.
Clearly there is misinformation among the American population that accounts for the drastic difference between perception and reality, and this misinformation comes from the representative heuristic. During times of slow news developments, 24 hour news stations will fill their airtime with something else out of financial necessity. This alternative to breaking news is a sensationalized, yellow journalist approach to crime.
But notice whenever a major tragedy strikes, such as the events of September 11, 2001, the perception of an increased crime rate drops significantly.
The second question that needs to be asked is why is it that so many people of color suffer from this increase in incarceration, compared with a relatively small number of Caucasians? Why is it that the association between people of color and crime is so persistent in our country?
The actual occurrence of crime is not the culprit for the incredibly high incarceration rate of African and Hispanic Americans. Instead, there is a larger, more systemic issue at play. Federal Prosecutors of African American and Hispanic defendants are twice as likely to push for mandatory minimum sentences, according to a report to congress by the United States Sentencing Commission. This leads to longer sentences and disparities in incarceration rates for federal offenses.
Furthermore, the news media is a constant source of the representative heuristic allows for media coverage of racial crime to dominate the minds of the average American, and subconsciously change them into microaggressions against African and Hispanic Americans. Violent crime stories are more likely to be covered if the suspect is black and the victim is white, according to a study by Travis L. Dixon and Daniel Linz.
Black suspects are more likely to have their mugshots shown, or to be shown resisting arrest. Each of these tendencies of the media lead to a more warped image of the stereotypical black man, assuming that he is more capable of violent crime than a white man, or an Asian man, or a white woman, or an Asian woman.
It is a very founding pillar of our country that all people are created equal, and yet we so fiendishly treat some of our own citizens with such contempt. But all of mankind is just as capable of evil as they are capable of good. Racism is a plague to our country, spreading right under our noses through the seemingly innocent outlet of news media bias. But just as the people of Europe did not think to blame the lowly sewer rat for the spread of the bubonic plague, so do few of us know the vile nature of filler news.
The news media wields a unique power, unchecked because of the busy lives of Americans who will not take the time to truly understand the context of what is reported. Unless this trend is changed, and voters turn away from politicians competing to be the most “tough on crime,” America’s love affair with excessive prison sentencing is likely to continue.