How Popular Media Can Influence Public Policy. – a paper by Polk, J.F.

How Popular Media Can Influence Public Policy. – a paper by Polk, J.F.

The popular media influences which topics the news media addresses.  This is a basic equation that can be shown by some studies (Stockwell, 2011).  As an example of this let us look at the programmatic content of several television shows after the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.  Between October 3, 2001 and February 11, 2003 the shows “West Wing” and “24” dealt with not-so-fictional topics relating to homeland security which had yet to be truly conversationally broached by the news media.  These topics ranged from women on middle eastern US military bases to unethical actions by US intelligence justified by national security issues all the way to torture to extract information and assassination orders. (Stockwell, 2011, p. 195a).

The news media seemed to have a lag time behind the shows “West Wing” and “24” by about 2 years in addressing these specific topics.  Stockwell specifically shows the news media first addressing the following topics on the following dates:

*6 Mar 2003   – USA Today – ‘Interrogation is tough but not torture’.

*20 Mar 2003 – Invasion of Iraq.

*16 Jan 2004  – US Command begins Abu Ghraib investigation.

*28 Apr 2004 – 60 Minutes – does story on Abu Graib.

*10 May 2004 – New Yorker – Seymour Hersh story on chain of command re Abu Ghraib blames President.

*12 May 2004 – Abu Ghraib screening at Pentagon.

*23 Oct 2004 – Envoy silenced re rendition.

*14 Feb 2005 – New Yorker = covers outsourcing torture.

*31 Mar 2009 – Hersh and Goodman discuss JSOC assassination wing.

(Stockwell, 2011, p. 195b)

What does this have to do with public policy?  There are other studies which show that public sentiment as shaped by the market driven news media highly influences criminal justice policy (Beale, 2006).  There is a drive for higher punitive sanctions due to the public’s perception of violence in the United States.  2006 when the Beale Journal article was written saw about 1.417 million violent crimes (US DOJ FBI CJIS 2006) occur nationally within the United States.  Compare that to the FBI statistics from 2015 of 1.165 million violent crimes (US DOJ FBI CJIS 2015).  There may be a correlation between what the popular media shows as entertainment and what the news media then shows for ratings and then a synergy of public opinion which then influences the way criminal justice policy goes.  At the time of writing her journal article, Beale noted that violent crime in 2006 was further down drastically from a decade before.

What these articles and 2 FBI statistics show is that it is possible that the public has reawakened a cultural spirit of retribution.  One of the main philosophies of punishment in law is retribution and it is making a big comeback.  The American people are sick of a good portion of the violence and the glorification of violence in the media. Our public imagination has begun to be held captive by classical criminological theories of punishment, and retribution and our legislation is being swayed in that direction.


Stockwell, S. (2011). Messages from the apocalypse: Security Issues in American TV series.
Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, vol. 25, no. 2, apr. 2011, 189-199

Beale, S.S (2006).  The News Media’s Influence on Criminal Justice Policy: How Market-Driven
News Promotes Punitiveness, 48 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 397.
Retrieved from:

US DOJ FBI, CJISD (2006). Violent Crime. Retrieved from:

US DOJ FBI, CJISD (2015). Violent Crime.  Retrieved from:​​

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