Searching for Justice: News Media Coverage of Re-entry
Knology studied news coverage of the carceral system and how the media covers formerly incarcerated people’s experiences of re-entering society.
The US incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation in the world (Statista, 2021), even though advocates, researchers, and the public have called for reform for years. This pattern also translates to large numbers of people who have completed sentences. In the US, 4.5 million people – one in every 55 adults – is under community supervision, such as parole or probation (Horowitz et al., 2018). Millions more have completed supervision at some point in the past. And countless people have family members and loved ones currently or previously involved in the carceral system.
The public’s understanding of the carceral system is important because it can shape debates, policies, and cultures surrounding that system. And because people without direct personal experience tend to form their opinions on social issues based on what they see in news media, it’s important to study news media and the tone it sets.
In 2021, we set out to understand how the news media covers the carceral system, specifically formerly incarcerated people’s experiences of re-entering society. Our study examined local news stories from a select number of states in the US. We wanted to investigate the nature of reporting on barriers to re-entering society, as well as the gaps in coverage of this topic. These questions guided our analysis:
- Do news stories treat people who have been incarcerated as full human beings, or do they focus on a “criminal” identity?
- How does news coverage treat the carceral system and re-entry process?
- How do journalists characterize redemption for formerly incarcerated people?
We hope that the answers to these questions will inform the work of news media organizations and journalists as they continue reporting on re-entry. The Kendeda Fund provided support for this project.
This study revealed that news coverage spans a diverse set of re-entry issues, including employment, voting, housing, healthcare, personal finance, and more. However, there is little attention paid to the relationship between the carceral system and re-entry experiences. Researchers and advocates have shown how the US carceral system disproportionately oppresses minoritized groups – particularly Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities (e.g., Equal Justice Initiative, n.d.; Prison Policy Initiative, n.d.). Yet news stories largely neglected this aspect of the carceral system and its effect on re-entry experiences. We also found a reporting gap in the overlapping and interlocking connections among barriers to re-entry. For instance, formerly incarcerated people typically have difficulty finding stable housing. This issue then complicates people’s ability to open bank accounts, which further threatens their financial stability.
We found that most reporting tends to humanize formerly incarcerated people by using language that acknowledges their personhood. These humanizing approaches included phrases like person on parole or individual names, rather than terms like prisoner or convict. While our analysis focused on print articles, we observe that video interviews enable journalists to further humanize their subjects, as visuals can provide information about a person’s background and emotions beyond what is typically offered in print stories. We also examined story structure, to determine whether coverage offered details about subjects’ convictions and at what point in the story that information was included. Generally, news stories featuring individuals did not recount their offenses. However, reporting that did include such details typically introduced that information in the first few lines. This practice had the effect of casting convictions as the most important detail about a person.
Most stories were reform-minded, meaning that they characterized the carceral system as flawed but able to be improved. Some stories framed the carceral system as functioning well and very few advocated for abolishing the entire system. In a similar vein, about three-quarters of the stories presented incarcerated people as redeemable. This approach reflected the belief that individuals “repay their debt to society” through personal growth during incarceration, and that barriers to re-entry put an unnecessary burden on people. A small number of articles expressed the belief that the only path to re-entry is through ongoing punishment.
In spite of the humanizing reporting practices and reform orientations that appeared in a majority of articles, we also saw inconsistency in reporting styles. News articles often contained tropes that appeared to undermine their intent. For example, a story that used humanizing terms to describe its subject and advocated for reforming as aspect of re-entry might also use the opening lines to introduce the individual’s offense.
Let’s Put It to Work
This research points to several overarching ways to improve reporting on barriers to re-entry for formerly incarcerated people.
Connect the Dots
Reporting should be clear about the source of re-entry issues, rather than simply describing the effects. Explain the links between the design of the carceral system and barriers to re-entering society, as well as the overlapping and compounding nature of these barriers.
Be Consistent with Tone, Structure, & Intent
News coverage should make sure all components of a story align with each other. If a reporter seeks to humanize formerly incarcerated people, make sure that language and story structure support this goal.
Focus on Solutions
While clarity on the source of problems is important, it is also critical to showcase what works for reducing and removing barriers to re-entry. Solutions Journalism offers a framework for this approach, which recommends describing tangible rather than hypothetical responses to a social issue, demonstrating evidence of a solution’s impact as well as acknowledging its limitations, and facilitating engagement in a solution, among other techniques.
Be Aware of Choices in Medium
Consider how audio or video stories can help humanize a formerly incarcerated person.