News media influences on public views of sentencing

Abstract

Opinion polls in Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and elsewhere suggest that most members of the public would like their criminal courts to be harsher. Does media coverage of criminal sentencing contribute to a preference for harsher sentencing? Most people derive their information about sentencing from the news media and content analyses of news stories in Canada and the United States demonstrate that crimes of violence and sentences of imprisonment are overrepresented. Moreover, the news media provide little systematic information about the sentencing process or its underlying principles. This article reports the results of three studies examining the effects of media coverage on public opinion about sentencing. Subjects who read actual newspaper stories about sentencing that appeared in Canadian newspapers rated most reported sentences as too lenient. However, the specific account they read influenced their leniency judgments. Furthermore, in one experiment, participants assigned to read a newspaper account of a sentencing decision supported harsher sentences than participants who read a summary of actual court documents from the sentencing hearing.

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Correspondence to Julian V. Roberts.

Additional information

The authors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Valerie Hans and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper. The research reported in this article was carried out under contract with the Department of Justice, Canada, in some instances, and as part of the research program of the Canadian Sentencing Commission in others. Some of this research is derived from material contained in Doob and Roberts, 1982, 1983, 1984, and 1988, and the Report of the Canadian Sentencing Commission (1987). The writing of this article was supported by the Contributions Programme of the Solicitor General, Canada, to the Canadian criminology centers—specifically the Centre of Criminology, University of Toronto and the Department of Criminology, University of Ottawa. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of any government department or commission. We wish to thank Patricia Parker for running Study 2, and Brian Greenspan for providing the materials for Study 3. We would also like to thank the administration of the Ontario Science Centre for generously giving us access to facilities and visitors. Copies of the research materials used in, any of the studies described here are available from the authors.

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Roberts, J.V., Doob, A.N. News media influences on public views of sentencing. Law Hum Behav 14, 451–468 (1990). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01044222

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Keywords

  • Systematic Information
  • Media Coverage
  • News Medium
  • News Story
  • Underlying Principle