Monday, March 26, 2012

Community Punishment in the News

Recently I gave a paper entitled "Community Punishment in the News" as part of the PhD Seminar Series. It detailed research I had undertaken last summer into newspaper representations about community punishment, and what their implications were for how public opinion forms around this group of sentences.

I thought it would also be a good idea to post some of the information from the presentation here on the blog (especially since a lot of people have told me that they couldn't make it). So here goes!

According to an orthodox account, community punishment (those sentences set for adults by ss. 177-205 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003) have had a long history of being overlooked by news media, which tend instead to focus upon imprisonment when they deign to highlight criminal issues. When community sanctions do attract the limelight, they usually meet with hostility from virtually all sides, together with the ubiquitous complaint that they are 'soft on crime' in comparison with their custodial alternatives. I set out last summer to unpick some of these arguments and find out how frequently and with what intent newspapers refer to these dispositions.

What I discovered was the community punishment was a much discussed topic, although I suspect that the number of articles referring to the phenomenon is significantly less than those discussing other sentences. In the period between January 2003 and July 2011, some 23,125 articles mentioned community punishment in some way, according to the Nexis UK database. That figure isn't the most reliable in the world, as the database included some articles multiple times, but it's still several orders of magnitude above what I expected to find on the basis of the orthodox account that I outlined above. In particular, local newspapers voraciously include articles on community punishment, perhaps attracted by the opportunity it creates for the community to get involved in criminal justice processes.

Of those 23,000-odd articles I used stratified random sampling to pick out a sample of 2,000, submitting them to a thematic analysis. In other words, I picked out themes in the arguments made by the newspapers under study that were common to at least two articles and then counted their incidence, as well as analysing their discussion of community punishment in relation to the rest of the sample.

Using this methodology I identified 12 themes in news media discourse:
  • that community punishment is ineffective or inadequate (either in certain cases or as a punishment entirely);
  • that it was effective;
  • that it was a normal and unremarkable state of affairs;
  • that reforms involving community punishment were either positive or negative;
  • where community punishment was discussed in extremely emotive terms;
  • that the crime involved extraordinarily violent or sexual elements;
  • that anti-social behaviour surrounded the crime that led to community punishment;
  • where the offender was young (under 18);
  • where community punishment involved an element of restorative, reparative, or victim-centred justice; and
  • where the offender was described using what I call the "Spared Jail" rhetoric.
It's worth noting that initially, this sample seemed extremely negative about the use of community punishment. Negative themes (ineffectiveness, inadequacy, negative approaches to reform) outweighed positive ones (effectiveness, positive approaches to reform) by a ratio of about 3:2. However, by far the most dominant theme was the normalisation of community punishment: that it was fine in most circumstances in which it was used.

Moreover, negative and positive attitudes were highly situated in individual newspapers, with some (notably tabloids) publishing far more frequently than others (notably broadsheets). The question of how these articles affected peoples' opinions of community punishment and the criminal justice system was therefore far much more about which paper one reads, rather than how many articles one was exposed to.

The sample confirmed that news media coverage of criminal justice news tends to act out two major roles: namely, the provision of moral guidance and exciting human drama. This is illustrated by the use of the "Spared Jail" rhetoric, which appeared in about 10% of articles (191/2000).

Since there is no easy buzzword to describe community punishment, unlike imprisonment (which can be shortened to "jail") or fines (which have a short enough name to fit into headlines as they are), newspapers have had to come up with a short, snappy way of describing it for when newsprint is at a premium (for example, in headlines or short articles). In these cases, one tends to see community punishment referred to as being 'spared jail', or some derivative thereof.

What's interesting is that the use of this term is morally loaded. Where the newspaper believes the offender is 'deserving' of moral support, they describe the offender as having been 'spared jail' or 'granted mercy' by the judge. On the other hand, where the offender deserves moral condemnation she is usually described as 'avoiding', 'cheating', or even 'escaping' jail. In other words the description of the offender changes to fit the newspaper's moral approach to the story: if the offender is 'good' then she is meek and passive in the trial process, throwing herself on the mercy of the court, and therefore of society. By contrast, if she is 'bad', then she is a shrewd manipulator of the criminal justice process who has hoodwinked the judge and gotten off with an overly lenient sentence. Given what we know about the role of defendants in criminal trials in England and Wales, both of these positions are significant departures from empirical reality.

All this evidence suggests that what might appear as intransigent newspaper opposition to community punishment is far more complex the closer one gets to news discourse. It might be better to say that news media are (as a rule) more reactionary than outrightly hostile towards penal reform, accepting that community punishment is normal and acceptable for certain crimes but vociferously opposed to its use elsewhere. This being the case, it may be that today's travesty of justice will be tomorrow's business as usual to the same editor. There is therefore reason to be somewhat optimistic about the public legitimacy of community punishment and sentnecing reforms.

However, at the same time, it is clear that newspapers (and news media in general) have a profound effect upon public discourse, and therefore upon public opinion. They have an almost unmatched capacity to shape the way in which certain concepts (such as community punishment) are formed in the public imagination, because many people rely more or less exclusively on news media for information about the criminal justice system. This may mean that latent hostility towards community sentencing becomes extremely entrenched, which may dissuade politicians eager to be re-elected from pursuing reforms that expand their use. In other words, whilst there are reasons to be optimistic about news media representations of community punishment, there are also reasons for pessimism.

The final conclusion is that any such problem with the acceptability of community punishment to the public is not an immutable fact of public life. News media dominate public discourse, but they are not the only channel by which that discourse may be had. Public institutions, government bodies, academic publications and entertainment media all provide opportunities for other voices to be heard, and it is to them that we should turn if we find fault in the description of community punishment in the news.

Hopefully there will soon be a news item on the University website that has a link to my PowerPoint presentation, which contains a full Bibliography for further reading.

1 comment:

  1. The promised link (which also goes to details on Kelly's presentation a couple of weeks before):