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Exploratory Study From Interviews With American Reporters Who Cover Jails and Prisons, Corrections Compedium, 2011

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Challenges of Reporting on Corrections:

An Exploratory Study Derived From
Interviews With American Reporters
Who Cover Jails and Prisons
By Jeffrey Ian Ross

A

lthough numerous studies
have been conducted on how
reporters cover crime in general (Cohen and Young, 1981), or police specifically (Ericson, Baranek
and Chan, 1989), other components
of the criminal justice system have
been relatively ignored. One area
that is rarely explored is the news
media’s (specifically print) experience
and efficacy to report on corrections
(i.e., jails, prisons, community corrections, inmates, correctional officers, correctional administrators,
and the policies and practices
therein).1
Why is this important? During the
past four decades, America has experienced one of the largest expansions
in its jail, prison and community corrections populations. In 2008, 7.3
million people were under the control
of the U.S. criminal justice system.
Approximately 2.2 million were behind bars in jails or prisons, 4.3 million were on probation and 828,169
were on parole (U.S. Department of
Justice, 2010a). State and federal
correctional facilities (not to mention
private prisons) employ roughly
650,000 people who work as administrators, correctional officers, case
managers, classification officers, probation and parole officers, counselors
and social workers. It currently costs
approximately $68.8 billion a year to
fund the U.S. correctional system
(U.S. Department of Justice, 2010b)
and the number of individuals entering jails and prisons is generally increasing. In short, reliable reporting
on the field of corrections in the
United States is necessary to draw
attention to and understand this social issue.
In an effort to fill this gap, this article briefly reviews the scholarly research on the news media’s portrayal
of corrections and the challenges reporters face in covering this part of
Corrections Compendium

the criminal justice system. It then
presents results from interviews conducted with the handful of American
print media reporters who specialize
in or have focused a significant part
of their careers on covering corrections.2

Literature Review
How newspapers cover the corrections field. Many empirical analyses
explore the connection between the
news media and crime/criminal justice. Only one study examines how
stories on corrections are produced.
Doyle and Ericson (1996) conducted
interviews using open-ended questions with “correctional officials, various alternative news sources and
media workers” in Canada. They
found that “Officials are only intermittently successful in managing
news coverage of prisons. Journalists
can access a variety of alternative,
critical news sources. Correctional officials are often engaged in damage
control regarding ‘bad news’ from
other sources.” Although Doyle and
Ericson provided a respectable beginning, few have built upon their
study.
Content analyses. Research on the
relationship between the media and
corrections that examines newspaper
coverage of specific topics is more
abundant. None of these studies,
however, looks at how news media
other than newspapers treat corrections. Mahan and Lawrence (1996)
examined the role of the press during the Attica (1971), New Mexico
(1980) and Lucasville (1993) prison
riots. They do so through a marshaling of “different kinds of documents
published following each riot and included information from the criminology literature as well as media
and investigative reports.” The authors state that two key lessons can

be learned from an analysis of these
riots. The first is to be cautious
about the role of journalists when
they cross the line from being reporters to acting in the role of negotiators, and the second is to be aware
that reporters are caught in the middle of the public’s right to know versus the prison authorities’ need to
control the violence.
Blakely and Bumphus (2005) selected a sample of 2,654 articles on
prison privatization and randomly
selected 151 for intensive analysis to
determine if both the article title and
content favored privatization or not.
They concluded that: “Privatization is
portrayed as a practice closely associated with profit, efficiency and
overcrowding. Currently, the print
media focuses on privatization’s external characteristics rather than on
those internal traits more closely
associated with inmates, staff and issues of operational quality. Furthermore, the print media is portraying
prison privatization more negatively
now than at any time since its re-emergence nearly two decades ago.”
The study does not argue why the
years 1986-2002 and the number of
articles were selected. Moreover, there
is no mention of technical procedures
used in the story that one would find
in a content analysis such as controlling for intercoder reliability.
Cecil (2007) identified 195 articles
on multimillionaire Martha Stewart’s
incarceration. Stories were culled
from five newspapers whose circulations rank among the highest in the
U.S. She concluded that “The messages show us that by highlighting
[nonessential] elements and failing to
offer comparisons, the press ... normalizes the unique experience of
Martha Stewart as an inmate.” Cecil
argued, “The way most of the newspaper articles are written, and the
images associated with them, make

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Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2427885

Spring 2011

Stewart’s experiences appear routine, even though she is a famous
person with privileges that most female offenders do not have.”
Finally, an alternative approach
was taken by Mason (2007) who examined “four [corrections-related] stories which appeared in several British
newspapers in October 2005.” He
evaluated the reporting on these stories and the reality behind them, including media misrepresentations,
failure to tell the complete story and
inaccuracies in the articles.
Four more general-content analyses of corrections coverage exist.
First, Jacobs and Brooks (1983) examined newspaper, periodical and
television news broadcasts about
prison that appeared in 1976. Although they acknowledged the problems with their data source, Jacobs
and Brooks suggested that, “The
daily newspapers provided the
largest number of stories about prisons.” The authors coded “98 percent
of prison-related news into seven categories: penal policy and conditions,
disturbances, litigation, human interest, celebrities, escapes and editorials.” Penal policy garnered the lion’s
share of attention, and “Magazines
gave more coverage (61 percent) to
penal conditions and policy than to
any other category.” Although dated,
the investigators noted that “These
data refute the assertion that mass
media prison coverage is dominated
by accounts of violence,” and that
“There is more news on such topics
as prison conditions and penal policy, legislative developments and
prisoners’ rights, than on brutality,
violence and escape.” They also note
that, “These gross statistics seem to
belie the assertion that the public is
uninformed about prisons. Compared
with other social issues — for example, nursing homes, mental health
and welfare — the prisons fare well in
the competition for news space.”
Second, Freeman (1998) examined “the content of 1,546 newspaper
articles concerning corrections that
appeared through the United States
between Sept. 8, 1994, and Nov. 24,
1995.” He identified “11 categories of
negative behavior and four categories
of positive behavior ... and a frequency distribution of 105 staff and
22 inmate behaviors developed.”
Negative behavior was defined as
“behavior that could be reasonably
expected to create a negative impression in the readers’ mind.” Positive
behavior was simply the opposite; it
Corrections Compendium

“create[s] a positive impression in
the readers’ mind.” Unfortunately,
Freeman’s identification concerning
positive and negative behaviors is
questionable, if not arbitrary, and
lacks proper contextualization.
Third, Welch, Weber and Edwards
(2000) conducted a sophisticated content analysis that examined the
sources quoted in The New York Times
articles (1992-1995) focusing on correctional issues. They found that the
majority of sources that are quoted
work for political and government venues, and that they unsurprisingly
support state-level correctional policies. Although nongovernmental and
criminal justice practitioners are
quoted, they pale in comparison to the
state-based sources.
This scholarly literature reveals
some common patterns and trends of
coverage and constitutes a respectable base of knowledge development, but these content analyses are
disproportional snapshots and/or a
thin slice of the overall picture of corrections reporting. They focus on the
outcome of the reporting process —
the published article — and not on
the dynamics of the process. Moreover, none of the content analyses of
corrections goes beyond print media
into broadcast media. In short, there
are more scholarly articles analyzing
the final product of reporting on corrections versus the production of stories. There is also an implicit (but
questionable) assumption that suggests that the final product (i.e., stories) says something about the
construction of the articles.
Problems with the news media’s
coverage of corrections. Accurate and
abundant news coverage of corrections
is very difficult for several reasons:
Crime/criminal justice is a low-status
beat, thus few reporters specialize in
covering jails and prisons; editors believe that the public is not interested
in corrections-related issues and/or
think that the costs of reporters covering jails and prisons will not be
worth the expense, and thus are reluctant to have journalists cover this
beat full time; it is difficult for reporters to gain access to correctional
facilities; and the subject often is not
emphasized as part of the curriculum
in the country’s journalism schools.
Few reporters cover corrections. In
general, the larger the circulation,
readership, listenership or viewership of a media outlet, the greater
the number of reporters. The variability of reporters is then largely a

function of the newspaper’s resources, which are determined by
revenue and by editorial and management perceptions and reality of
market share. Larger newspapers
typically have a dedicated crime or
police reporter on staff. Some, like
The New York Times, can have more
than 10 police or crime reporters.
Such journalists often work out of
police headquarters, as many police
departments will provide a room and
a desk and will allow reporters to
pursue the stories they want (Ross,
2000).
Nevertheless, few crime reporters
are assigned to cover prisons or jails
on a full- or even part-time basis.
Chermak (1998) states that the
“news media do not have a corrections beat that fulfills the same function as a police or court beat.” The
reporters normally write articles/
produce pieces on the seemingly
endless slew of robberies and homicides that law enforcement officers
deal with on a daily basis. One must
also recognize that crime reporting is
often an entry-level position in most
large-scale news organizations. Reporters often spend some of their
early careers on the crime beat before moving on to cover more prestigious beats like city hall, education
or local and state politics. Eventually, if they are lucky or so inclined,
journalists may cover national or international politics.
Editors’ perceptions. Since editors
believe the public isn’t interested in
corrections-related news or that it is
not worth the investment of their reporters’ time, there could be a selffulfilling prophecy at work: The news
media do not report on corrections,
thus the public is not interested, and
since a wider audience is not interested, neither are the media. According to Warren (2009), “With buyouts
becoming commonplace at our nation’s media outlets, it is unlikely
most reporters will have the luxury
of covering corrections as a full-time
beat.” An alternative perspective is
that editors might feel that the expense of having one or more reporters cover corrections is not worth
the investment. In other words, they
may not be able to produce newsworthy items that result in one or
more publishable articles.
Access. The news media’s accounts
of jails and prisons are seriously hampered by limited access to facilities,
offenders, correctional workers and
administrators (Yeung, 2003). The

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Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2427885

Spring 2011

amount of access reporters have to
jails and prisons varies according to
the type of facility, its policies and
procedures, and the jurisdiction
within which they operate (Talbott,
1988; 1989; Zaner, 1989; Hincle,
1996; Kirtley, 1998). Regardless,
some jails and prisons are hesitant
to allow inmates to be interviewed by
reporters.
Many state departments of correction control the frequency with which
journalists can interview inmates: “In
the 1990s, as the politicization of
crime increased and the resulting
prison population boom began careening out of control, prison and government officials in the United States
started tightening up on news media
interviews and other contacts between
prisoners and journalists — just as
they had done in a previous period
when prisons became politicized in
the early 1970s (Sussman, 2002).”
Much of what is reported often
comes from limited or biased sources
such as the prison information officers themselves. In many cases, the
news media have been denied complete access to certain facilities and
inmates housed within. Nevertheless, each jail and prison has its own
policies and procedures, and some
are stricter than others. Moreover,
correctional agencies, state departments of correction and individual
correctional facilities rarely distribute press releases or conduct press
conferences about prisoners who
have been murdered or sexually assaulted by other inmates.
The U.S. Supreme Court has derived
three major principles concerning
prison access: The First Amendment
“does not guarantee the public or the
press a right to obtain information
from prisons”; “Journalists have no
greater rights of access than the general public”; and “The public’s need
for access to information will be balanced against other societal needs,
such as law enforcement interests
and personal privacy” (Saxbey v.
Washington Post, 1974; Pell v.
Procunier, 1974). In some prison systems, once access is granted, journalists are not allowed to use audio or
video equipment (e.g., tape recorders),
pens or paper or to conduct any interviews without correctional officers
present (Vosters, 1999).
Covering corrections is not emphasized in journalism schools. Rarely
are there stand-alone courses for reporters in U.S. journalism schools
that teach students how to cover all
Corrections Compendium

facets of corrections. This perception
is buttressed by a review of the
course catalogues of the major journalism schools throughout the
United States.3

Method
In an effort to build upon both the
scant scholarly literature on media
coverage of corrections and the limited content analysis examining this
subject, in the spring of 2008 and fall
of 2009, five American newspaper reporters who have focused on or who
currently specialize in covering corrections were identified and contacted. As research and theory in
this area is limited, this study is best
conceptualized as both exploratory
and grounded research (e.g., Glaser
and Strauss, 1967). Questions that
were asked built upon the ones that
have been used in previous studies
of crime reporters (e.g., Tuchman,
1978; Fishman, 1980; Ericson,
Baranek and Chan, 1987), designed
to better understand the relationship
between news worker practices and
content (e.g., Shoemaker and Reese,
1996). Although this sample may appear to be small, readers are cautioned that, according to the author’s
extensive research, few journalists in
the U.S. are assigned to a permanent
corrections beat. These five journalists were identified through their
well-known coverage of jails and prisons4 and/or via the snowball sampling technique.5 If reporters were
recommended for the current study
by word of mouth, then an online
search of their reporting during the
past three years was conducted. If it
appeared that the bulk of their reporting (greater than 50 percent) covered corrections, they were contacted.
All interviewees were contacted via
phone or e-mail; a 100 percent participation rate was achieved. Each
reporter was asked a series of questions (see Appendix A) and, in the
case of telephone interviews, conversations with each individual lasted
approximately 20 minutes to an
hour. During the course of these
conversations, the interviewees were
allowed to stray into other related
subject matters they believed were important. This practice was encouraged
by designing a series of open-ended
questions that allowed interviewees to
include their own interpretations of
the questions posed. Answers were either recorded by hand or by the respondents via e-mail.

9

After completing the data collection, the transcripts were reviewed,
with responses from each informant
compared to identify both major
themes as well as subthemes in the
data. Also, differences among the respondents on the questions asked
were noted, with a view toward identifying important issues that might
not have been mentioned by other respondents, but were nonetheless determined to be valuable to the study.
Sample. In order to protect the
identity of these individuals,6 they are
referred to as Adam,7 Ida,8 Charlie,9
Mary10 and Nora.11 Efforts were also
made to disguise the names of the
newspapers or news media sources
for which they currently report. Almost all earned an undergraduate
degree. Two have master’s degrees,
one of which is in journalism. Most
have won awards for their reporting,
though not necessarily because of
their work on corrections. Two of the
reporters were primarily free-lancers,
while the other three worked full
time for big-city daily newspapers
with large regional circulations. The
roster of reporters includes both men
and women who have different kinds
of formal training and whose geographical locations are spread
throughout the country.

Findings
How long have the reporters been
covering the corrections beat? Reporters ranged anywhere from nine
to 27 years covering corrections with
an average of 17.9 years on the jails
and prisons beat. Adam has been a
freelance writer since 1994. Only in
the past 10 to 11 years has he focused disproportionately on corrections. Mary has been a freelance
writer since 1985. When Mary began
her career, she primarily focused on
writing about music and wrote only
a few stories on the criminal justice
system and on prisons in particular.
Now, about 85 percent of her published articles focus on jail and
prison conditions and on inmates
with unique circumstances.
Charlie has been covering prisons
since 1991-1992. Ida, who has covered corrections the longest among
the reporters interviewed, started reporting on prisons in 1978 when the
Georgia State Prison “was in a lot of
turmoil.” “That summer, more than
12 men were killed, including a [correctional officer].” Ida took a break
from corrections reporting from late
1982 through the fall of 1987 when
Spring 2011

she moved out of state; she resumed
covering prisons in 1987 with the
riots at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta. “Prisons stopped being a beat
for me about four years ago,” she
said. “It is no longer a beat at all
under the new newsroom organization.” According to Nora, she spent
the last decade of her 23-year career
at a high-circulation newspaper with
national circulation covering corrections while working out of the state
capitol bureau.
Why do the reporters cover the corrections beat? Reporters who answered this question point to a sense
of interest and to a duty to cover corrections. Adam describes the corrections beat as “an interesting issue to
report on because it ties into so many
other themes — poverty, public
health, mental illness, drugs, unemployment, etc.” This beat also provides
a respectable challenge, he added.
“It’s also a challenging issue to navigate: access sometimes is restricted,
there’s a mountain of data to work
through and verification of stories
isn’t always easy,” Adam said. “So,
overall I’d say it’s a hard area to report
on but a fascinating one.” Moreover,
this beat gives reporters an exclusive
identity inside their news organization
and among other reporters. Other
themes that emerged in the responses
to this question include the idea of a
personal connection; selected reporters have had some sort of personal experience with the corrections
industry.
Mary has a particular affinity for
her subject matter. “When I jumped
into the profession I was inspired by
the muckraker journalists,” she said.
“They gave me hope about this country. Writing was my calling. I started
looking around for issues that were
crying out to report on.” As an immigrant to the United States and as an
ethnic studies major, she recognized
how certain groups seemed to be
written out of the textbooks and public discourse. When Mary found subjects that were covered in the press
from a one-dimensional angle, she
knew she could do better and portray
them better in a three-dimensional
fashion.
One of the most dominant themes
Mary found was the lack of critical
coverage of criminal justice issues,
particularly the stigmatization of
people behind bars. Part of Mary’s
interest comes from her background;
during her teenage years, she grew
up as one of two children in a postCorrections Compendium

divorce, low-income, single-parent
household in Los Angeles. Her friends
were arrested several times before
she turned 18. Mary got to see firsthand how early contact with the
criminal justice system just “ate up
peoples’ lives and contributed to
their cycle of reincarceration.”
“[I] covered corrections because I
thought it was a critical beat,” Mary
said. “Prisons are holding people in
the name of citizens and those citizens should know that they are operated safely and humanely,” Ida
adds. Charlie admits that “No one
else was covering it back in the mid1990s when prisons were rapidly
growing, and many changes were
being made such as the end of parole
in Virginia.” According to Nora:
The media have a special duty
to cover corrections and the
prison system. When society
locks up and becomes guardian
of its citizens, journalists have
an obligation to keep the spotlight on to ensure that basic
and constitutional protections
are provided to inmates and
the public’s money is being
well-spent on programs and
policies that deliver true public safety. Corrections also
represents a fascinating intersection between politics, government policy and the public
passions enflamed by crime.
There is human drama, along
with potential for great investigative pieces targeting abuse
of power, the exertion of political influence through campaign donations and other
topics.
What are the biggest obstacles that
corrections reporters have had to
overcome, and how did they deal with
them? The interviewed reporters
cited three areas in which they encountered the most obstacles: access, convincing editors to let them
cover corrections and “getting to the
truth of the matter.”
First, some of the biggest obstacles Adam cited as a part of working
the corrections beat include: “information access, gaining entry into
prisons and getting to talk to specific
inmates. Beyond that, emotionally it
can be a draining theme to continually return to.” Ida stated, “Over the
years a certain amount of hostility
developed between me and employees of [her state’s] Department of
Corrections.” These issues can be
quite exhausting for reporters. She

10

concedes that she had minimal problems obtaining access to inmates
and to DOC personnel. In general,
she said that access to the prison
system varied based on who served
as commissioner at any given time.
One of the commissioners gave Ida a
letter that she could give to any warden, giving her permission to enter
any facility in the state unannounced. Ida also said that:
During the administration of
the commissioner who gave
me the letter, one of his
deputy commissioners put a
systemwide block on my
phone number so inmates
could not call me. Under a
previous commissioner, the
department had put my
number on each inmate’s approved calling list without
using one of the allowed
spots. Once the block was
put on, the only way to remove it was to do this inmate
by inmate. Of course they did
not do that claiming there
were too many inmates.
Another commissioner, on the
other hand, barred her from conducting interviews with inmates who
were on death row.
Reporters’ difficulties can easily
stretch to editors. According to
Adam:
Back in the late 1990s, very
few journalists were looking
at corrections from a systemic and a critical perspective. That was both good
and bad for me as a writer.
On the one hand, it meant I
was navigating virgin territory; on the other hand, it
involved a lot of education
work; getting editors to understand why these were
important issues. Since
then, more attention has
been focused on the prison
system’s growth and the implications of that growth. So
now it’s less necessary to
educate editors; on the
other hand there are more
people covering the same
terrain.
The major difficulty Charlie faces
in the course of his job is “getting to
the truth.” Charlie said, “Often it’s
hidden pretty well by the folks on
both sides of the bars.” He believes
that his work experience serves as a
bonus in overcoming some challenges. After a few years, he said he
Spring 2011

became better at determining if people were telling the truth. He said,
“Sometimes the most plausible,
truthful-sounding story turns out to
be nonsense — on the other hand,
some of the most incredible stuff
turns out to be true. Talking to as
many people as possible and getting
all sides to a story helps.” He added:
“Everyone inside prisons — inmates
and staff — are human beings with
good sides as well as bad. It’s important [to] not see anyone as one-dimensional or paint them that way.”
In many respects, Mary’s greatest
difficulty is convincing editors, even
those from progressive (i.e., left-leaning) publications, about the importance of jail- and prison-related
topics. “In the beginning, getting
these kinds of stories contracted was
very infrequent,” she said. Editors
would incredulously say, “We covered prisons last year.” They would
tell her that their publications’ readership comprised primarily middleand upper-class individuals and that
the problem of jails and prisons was
too remote for that kind of audience.
Mary feels that considerable background research is crucial to convincing an editor about the merits of
a corrections-related story; she refers
to this practice as “going to battle.”
“My pitches often exceed the length
of the story. I have much of the story
prepared in order to convince a skeptical editor, she said.” Knowing the
correctional jargon, especially the
acronyms, is also important both
with sources and editors. Otherwise,
access to prison is sometimes difficult for her. The only correctional institution where she was denied
entrance was a women’s federal correctional institution that, during the
1990s, endured a “sex-slave” lawsuit. Predictably, said Mary, the administration was wary of journalists.
Despite these obstacles, and unlike
some of her colleagues who write
about corrections, she never wanted
to throw in the towel.
Nora narrows her difficulties down
to three obstacles: “government reluctance to allow access to prisons
and prisoners; editor and public interest in inmates and the importance
of wise correctional policies; and inability to obtain records and other
solid data to document stories on individuals and on correctional system
trends (i.e., prison gang prevalence,
use of lockdowns, administrative segregation, etc.).”

Corrections Compendium

How do they describe the kind of
reporting they do on corrections? Ida
has written profiles of inmates and
commissioners to put a human face
on those who live or work inside
state prisons. As a result of her reporting, Ida has received a handful of
death threats concerning a series of
stories on sexual assault back in the
early 1990s. Charlie said that his reporting can be divided into breaking
news and features. Nora said that
she “tried to mix hard news/investigative work with more human interest pieces (profiles, feature on
women inmates and their particular
challenges, exploration of restorative
justice told through one woman’s
tragic loss) that hopefully helped
readers get beyond stereotypes and
think more broadly of corrections
and inmates.”
Is covering the corrections beat
enough to sustain the reporters
and/or have they moved on to other
subjects/beats? In addition to covering jails and prisons, Ida has reported on parole and other criminal
justice issues. Her work has garnered national and state awards for
reports on inmate abuse, ethics at
the state legislature and problems
with her city’s criminal court system.
Now Ida rarely covers corrections;
about three years ago, due to newsroom restructuring, she stopped reporting on the topic, and a colleague
took over that beat. Ida now is
mainly a general assignment reporter. Nevertheless, about 90 percent of her beat involves law
enforcement issues, including recent
stories about gun control.
During the past few years, Adam
has done considerably less corrections reporting. He agrees with other
corrections beat reporters that
“There’s only so much you can say
on a given theme. I’ve said much of
what I want to say, both in my articles and in my books. It’s an area
that continues to interest me, and I’ll
always come back to it periodically,
but I also am interested in covering
a host of other issues as well.”
These journalists are the exception to the average crime beat reporter. They encounter similar kinds
of obstacles, and all developed certain techniques to gain access and
sell their stories to their respective
editors. These methods require both
creativity and a strong connection to
their subject matter. Each has his or
her own unique reasons for covering
jails, prisons and community correc-

11

tions. They also admit that a little bit
of luck along the way helps. After a
review of the transcripts, it did not
appear that gender or age had a significant impact on their motivation
or the way they went about doing
their job. That being said, readers
must be cautious about overgeneralizing from this nonrandom, small
sample.

Conclusion
Most news stories are written to
inform and/or entertain the public.
Thus, it is hard to overlook the fact
that crime and criminal justice matters are a staple of the news media
(Kappeler, Blumberg and Potter,
1996; Barak, 1995a; 1995b; Surette,
1998; 1999). Unfortunately, jails,
prisons and other correctional facilities and practices are covered by the
news media primarily when negative
events occur and when sensational
stories surface (e.g., riots, crowding,
escapes).
Why is corrections coverage often
avoided by the print media? There
could be a self-fulfilling prophecy in
operation. The news media rarely report on corrections, and when they
do, it is rarely about something positive. As a result, the public is typically not interested in the subject;
since the public is not interested, the
media is not either. Much of the public also believes that inmates are getting their appropriate or deserved
punishment, so the old adage “of out
of sight, out of mind” prevails.
It takes a serious, dedicated and
experienced reporter (and a supportive editor and news organization) to
maintain an exclusive interest/specialization in the field of corrections
and regularly produce accurate stories on the topic. Five reporters
makes for a limited sample, and perhaps — with more digging — additional reporters can be tracked
down, especially those who cover the
field on only a part-time basis. As
this was both exploratory and
grounded research, future studies
could benefit from interviews with
newspaper editors, publishers and
owners to learn why publications shy
away from covering the topic of corrections. This sample could also be
extended to other countries; however, the perceived benefits may not
accrue taking this direction. Future
research might determine what differences exist among journalists who
cover policing, the criminal courts
Spring 2011

and juvenile justice compared with
the patterns identified in this study.
The field of corrections is embedded with numerous myths. Unfortunately cultural industries (i.e.
businesses, organizations and institutions that derive income by producing products and services that
are important in reflecting and shaping public opion and popular culture)
perpetuate many of these misconceptions. Few individuals attempt to
deconstruct these myths or provide
information that challenges them.
Besides scholars who conduct research on corrections, which have
limited audiences, and news reporters who cover corrections, there
are few others who perform this
function.

ENDNOTES
1

This article does not review the vast research and theory (i.e., media effects theory)
on the public’s perception of crime, some of
which deals with corrections. Although the
news media are an important factor in this
process, the author believes this specific
topic is sufficiently distant from the core purpose of the current study.
2

Finer level distinctions in the types of corrections (i.e., institutional versus noninstitutional corrections) subjects are not made.
Moreover, this study does not stray into sentencing issues such as the death penalty.
Keep in mind that the focus of this study is on
the reporters who occupy this beat and not
the influence of these journalists. Although
some reporters besides the ones identified, either self-directed or assigned by their editors,
periodically cover jails and prison may have a
greater impact (i.e., garner more attention)
than the reporters identified, this is not the
focus of this study. Finally, although important, this article is not interested in jailhouse
journalists (i.e., inmates who write for prisonbased newspapers or periodically contribute
articles to newspapers and magazines).

3
Despite an exhaustive search of the top 10
journalism programs in the United States, the
only course that is taught on a semiregular
basis is one that introduces students to reporting on the criminal justice system.
4
Searches of articles were run on LexisNexis
using the key terms “jails” and “prisons” during the past five years in order to see if there
were any reporters’ names that frequently reported on corrections.
5

A request was sent through a corrections-related list serve, but no responses were received.
6

Names were selected based on the police
phonetic alphabet, using male names for male
reporters and female names for female re-

Corrections Compendium

porters. Unfortunately, concealing the identity of the reporters removed some of the contextual details of the data.

Glaser, B.G. and A. Strauss. 1967. Discovery of
grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Hawthorne, N.J.: Aldine De Gruyter.

7

Hincle, P. July 1, 1996. Prisons to journalists:
Drop dead: At a time of unprecedented
growth and controversy state prison systems
are clamping down on media access. Extra!
Newsletter of Fair, 9(4):13.

E-mail interview with Adam, Friday, July 25,
2008.

8

Telephone interview with Ida, Thursday,
June 12, 2008, and follow-up e-mail interview
on Sept. 24, 2009.
9

Two interviews were conducted with Charlie.
The first was a telephone interview which occurred May 6, 2008, and the second was a follow-up e-mail interview on Oct. 3, 2009.
10

Telephone interview with Mary, Wednesday,
June 4, 2008.
11

E-mail interview with Nora, Tuesday Sept.
29, 2009.

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APPENDIX A
Interview Questions for Participating Corrections Reporters:
1. Can you provide a brief current bio? (no
more that 250 words; this can be cut and
pasted from some other venue).
2. How long have you covered/did you cover
the corrections beat? (When did you start?)
3. Why do you cover the corrections beat?
4. What are the biggest obstacles that you
have to overcome, and how did you deal with
them?
5. How would you describe the kind of reporting that you do on corrections?
6. Although you specialize in corrections, is
this enough to sustain you, or have you
moved on to other subjects/beats?
7. Can you suggest any other reporters who
specialize in corrections and who might be interested in speaking with me?

Jeffrey Ian Ross, Ph.D., is an associate
professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Baltimore and a
fellow in the law school’s Center for Comparative and International Law.

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