Just Mercy illustrates how the media influences the knowledge and views of its consumers, thereby shaping the public’s opinion of criminal justice issues and cases. Stevenson suggests that, because of this power, the media can be used either to educate the public about the court system, thereby propelling justice, or to perpetuate injustice through sensationalism. His accounts demonstrate how a lack of access to historical context and accurate information normalizes prejudiced ideas and actions, and he further shows how public opinion, whether founded or unfounded, impacts the fate of individuals facing the criminal justice system. Stevenson ultimately indicates that justice requires the media to take responsibility for how they disseminate information.
Sensationalist media coverage operates in several parts of Just Mercy to shape popular opinion around criminal justice issues and individual cases, which influences the actions of law enforcement, judges, and juries. For example, Stevenson demonstrates how the local news in the communities around Monroeville declared, even before his trial, that Walter was guilty of murdering Ronda Morrison. This coverage influenced the jury, leading to an incorrect guilty verdict and a death penalty sentence. Through this and other individual cases, Stevenson demonstrates how coverage of criminal investigations and proceedings can have a severe impact on the fate of the accused.
Stevenson further shows how sensationalist media trends can influence law enforcement and courts. For example, Stevenson described the media obsession in the 1990s and 2000s with stories about tragic “killer moms.” Because of this coverage, mothers who were considered to be suspects in child murder cases faced immediate public outrage, regardless of the strength or weakness of the evidence against them. Marsha Colbey, for example, was wrongfully convicted of murdering her stillborn child by jurors who admitted their own media-fueled bias against any mother accused of infanticide.
At the same time, Stevenson also shows how the media can advance the cause of justice by making the public aware of political corruption, unfair or inhumane treatment, and miscarriages of justice. Stevenson describes how he and the EJI reached out to national media sources during Walter’s retrial in order to publicize the political corruption and illegal state actions surrounding his conviction and sentencing. After 60 Minutes and other influential national media outlets aired Walter’s story, state officials were forced to finally pay attention to EJI’s petitions on behalf of Walter because the state feared the effects of negative national publicity. By describing this and other instances of media sources revealing injustices, Stevenson conveys the role of the media in holding law enforcement and public officials accountable for their actions.
Media and Public Opinion ThemeTracker
Media and Public Opinion Quotes in Just Mercy
The next day there were articles in the press about the execution. Some state officials expressed happiness and excitement that an execution had taken place, but I knew that none of them had actually dealt with the details of killing Herbert.
He became uncharacteristically emotional. “They put me on death row for six years! They threatened me for six years. They tortured me with the promise of execution for six years. I lost my job. I lost my life. I lost my reputation. I lost my – I lost my dignity.”