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April 4, 2015

How can we engage the media in reporting about offenders and prisons?

The Howard League has recently published an essay on how voluntary sector organisations advocating for penal reform could get more helpful media coverage.  The media’s approach to prisons and offending is undoubtedly a barrier to good policy and public understanding of crime and criminals.  The tabloids, in particular, focus on the worst of crimes, complain that offenders are insufficiently punished and depict prisons as holiday camps.  The paper written by Dr Marianne  Colbran echoes some of the findings of earlier research I did with colleagues for the Voluntary Action Media Unit (“Culture Clash? An investigation of the relationship between charities, the media and commercial PR agencies”).  Marianne depicts the gap between the expectations of media and charities.  The media complain to Marianne that charities don’t understand the criteria for news: “a lot of reactions to the media are based on these unrealistic notions of expecting them to report stories in this cool, rational, thoughtful way, of reporting something because it’s worthy”.   The media also complain that charities are always telling them the same story: “it’s the same old thing, prisoners’ rights, prisoners’ conditions and frankly unless something is very, very wrong, like a riot or a big escape, there is no story.”  As a former journalist, and current campaigner I sympathise with both sides.  But what I do know, is that it is charities who need to bend to meet the needs of journalists if they want “their” stories published.And that underlying the differences between the criminal justice voluntary sector and the media is a bigger problem – the attitudes and instincts of the public.  It was announced this week that support for the death penalty had gone below 50% in UK for the first time.  This is great news, but 48% still support it despite numerous stories of wrongful convictions and botched executions.  Our recent report with FrameWorks revealed that most people have deep seated feelings that offenders should be punished harshly. The media reflect and are members of the public.  So in the main they reflect those views, rather than those of penal reformers.  Part of the answer is to understand what the demands on journalists are, but we also need to try to engage with the public and their deepest instincts about crime and punishment.  This doesn’t mean compromising our values, but using different language and metaphors.