Searching for Justice

Evaluating media reporting on the US carceral system.

by Jena Barchas-LichtensteinRebecca Joy NorlanderNicole LaMarcaMelina ShermanBennett AttawayElliott Bowen
Mar 16, 2023

Around 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States at any given time. That's the highest per capita rate in the world. When they are released, most of those people will face "invisible punishment" such as community supervision (parole / probation) requirements, fines, and denial of voting rights. Time spent in prisons and jails impacts personal finances, employment, housing opportunities, social relationships, education, and more. As a result, it is critically important to understand the reentry process and the long-lasting consequences of experiences in the US carceral system.

Since 2020, our colleagues at PBS NewsHour have been reporting on the difficulties of reentry in their Searching for Justice series, with support from the Kendeda Foundation. Knology has partnered with them to research the following questions:

Most adults learn about things they don't experience directly through the news, among other sources. So 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 US states. We investigated reporting on barriers to re-entering society, as well as gaps in coverage of this topic. Three 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?

Where does the US public get information about reentry? What does the US public know about the topic, and what do they see as the biggest problems?

To learn more about public knowledge of and attitudes towards the carceral system and people reentering society, as well as the ways that information sources shape these perspectives, we also conducted an online survey of more than 500 people from around the US. We found that most people get information about the carceral system from traditional news media, with all other information sources besides "personal values or beliefs" lagging behind. However, the type of information source did not predict either (1) attitudes towards formerly incarcerated people or (2) judgments about the relative difficulty of various tasks for them.

We also found that while people were highly aware of some barriers to reintegration (including difficulties with voting and finding housing and employment), others had not made as strong a mark on public consciousness—for example, immediate food insecurity and access to affordable medical care. These findings pointed to gaps in knowledge that reporting can fill, and we shared them with our partners at the NewsHour (who heard many of the same things from the formerly incarcerated people they interviewed).

What do experts (with lived, professional, academic, and research experience) think of post-incarceration news coverage?

We convened a panel of experts to review the coverage on a rolling basis and share their thoughts.

We also spoke with several of these experts about their work and experiences both inside and outside of the criminal legal system. We think you'll learn more hearing from them than reading through reviews. For links to our "spotlight" interviews with these experts, see below!

What can “Searching for Justice” teach us about ways to define, create, and measure media impact?

At the conclusion of this project, we sat down with our partners at PBS NewsHour to reflect on the origins of “Searching for Justice” and what the project taught us about impact journalism. We then published a web version of our conversation at See our discussion for some insights on how journalists and media organizations can make a positive impact on those directly affected by the issues they’re covering.


Sawyer, W., & Wagner, P. (2020). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020. Prison Policy Initiative.

Travis, J. (2002). Invisible Punishment: An Instrument of Social Exclusion. In M. Mauer & M. Chesney-Lind (Eds.), Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Incarceration. The New Press.

Vera Institute. (2021). People in Jail and Prison in 2020.

Photo by Rayson Tan at Unsplash

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