Article | Miscellaneous
Judging by the Cover: On the Relationship Between Media Coverage on Crime and Harshness in Sentencing 

by Itay Ravid*

Vol. 93, No.6 (February 2021)
93 S. Cal. L. Rev. 1121 (2020)

Keywords: Media Coverage, Harshness in Sentencing 


Does the mass media affect judicial decisionmaking? This first of its kind empirical study delves into this long-lasting question, and investigates the relationship between media coverage of crime and criminal sentencing. To do so, I construct a novel data set of media reports on crime, which I link to administrative state court sentencing records. The data span five years and more than forty-three thousand sentencing decisions across three jurisdictions that differ in their judicial selection models: Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. I find that crime coverage increases sentencing harshness. I also find evidence to suggest that this effect is mitigated through a state’s method of judicial selection. The findings go beyond traditional, case-study scholarship on the nexus between the media and the judiciary, offering evidence that the media can affect judicial decisionmaking in broader contexts. These findings hold significant implications for policy and judicial politics and raise questions at the core of the criminal justice system. Particularly, they call for renewed attention to the media as an important factor in the criminal process and a potential obstacle towards achieving the constitutional ideal of fair trials. The Article concludes by suggesting methods for countering such media effects.



*Assistant Professor of Law, Villanova University, Charles Widger School of Law, J.S.D ’20, J.S.M ’13, Stanford Law School. I’d like to thank John Donohue, David Engstrom, Shanto Iyengar, H W Perry Jr., Jacob Goldin, David Sklansky, Amalia Kessler, Michael McConnell, Deborah Hensler, Dave Voelker, Barbara Fried, David Lang, Fernan Restrepo, Gilat Bachar, Binyamin Blum, Renana Keydar, and conference participants at Yale, Stanford, Emory and UT (Austin) law schools for helpful comments and conversations. I’d also like to thank Laura E. Little and the Temple Law School librarians and the Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania state court librarians and administration for all their invaluable help in collecting data on their respective state court judiciaries. I’m grateful for the generous research support provided by the John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics at Stanford Law School and Stanford’s Vice-provost for Graduate Education Diversity Research Grant. Chelsea House, Celina Jackson, Jasmin Issacs, and Darius Namazi provided excellent research assistance. Last, but not least, I’d like to thank the SCLR editorial board for their careful and diligent work on this piece. All errors are, of course, my own.