Sara Sun Beale: Examining the media's affect on criminal justice policy

June 1, 2007Duke Law News

In spite of a free-fall in crime rates over a 20-year period, sentences have lengthened substantially, and the United States now has the highest incarceration rate among Western countries. In “The News Media's Influence on Criminal Justice Policy: How Market Driven News Promotes Punitiveness,” Professor Sara Sun Beale’s examines the correlation between the policies that increased imprisonment and the news media’s coverage of crime.

An expert in federal criminal law and procedure, Beale notes that public opinion research consistently indicates that a majority of Americans believe sentences are too light, crime is rampant, and that it should among the highest priorities for public officials. “When it comes to crime, the media is not just acting as a mirror, reflecting back what’s happening in society, but making market driven choices about what’s going to be shown,” says Beale, who teaches a seminar called “Criminal Justice Policy: Crime, Politics, and the Media.” In choosing to showcase crime stories “with no correlation to the actual incidence of crime in a particular area,” news outlets are using market driven strategies designed to capture demographic groups prized by advertisers.

Active in federal criminal law reform - she serves as reporter to the Judicial Conference Advisory Committee on Criminal Rules - examining factors that shape public attitudes about crime, and how that translates into criminal justice policy is just one facet of Beale’s research. “It is impossible to understand the changes occurring in the criminal justice system without trying to understand their underlying causes,” she says.

Beale is the co-author of Federal Criminal Law and Its Enforcement (2d.ed 1993 & 3d ed. 2000), Federal Criminal Law and Related Actions: Crimes, Forfeiture, the False Claims Act and RICO (1998), and Grand Jury law and Practice (1986 & 2d ed. 1997), in addition to numerous scholarly articles. She is veteran of both the Office of Legal Counsel and the Office of the Solicitor General in the U.S. Department of Justice.