Justice Redefined

Wendy Wu ’22

Figure 1: The rise in activism over the past couple years comes with a focus on tackling broad social inequalities.

On January 18, 2015, Stanford University freshman Brock Turner was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was shot seven times by a police officer for, supposedly, reaching for his wallet. Both cases garnered extensive media coverage and incited public outrage towards the criminal justice system. Nicholas Chagnon and Nickie D. Phillips, Sociology and Criminal Justice professors at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and St. Francis College, respectively, sought to analyze how media coverage of both cases presented the concept of a broken justice system and the subsequent effects on the public perception of justice. 

Chagnon and Phillips used thematic press analysis to analyze the most prominent discussion — system failure — to arise from both the Stanford rape case and the Castile case. In order to identify a shared pattern, the team drew data from the top-ten circulating US newspapers, comments from The New York Times website and Reddit, and a selection of other articles and commentary on each case. 

From 227 articles plus additional commentary, Chagnon and Phillips noticed three consistent presentations of system failure: individualized justice, penal populism and transformative justice. First, by narrowing focus on the trials, the media encouraged the public to view trial verdicts as a measure of justice. Justice thus relies on the punishment of an individual perpetrator. When that punishment is unsatisfactory, media coverage engendered distrust in the system and drove public demands for harsh laws and harsher sentences. Chagnon and Phillips warn that such sentiment has pitted movements against each other, particularly in the Stanford rape case. The Castile case, however, led to a more transformative discussion. Eventually, conversations moved beyond superficial causes of injustice and into addressing larger societal ills. Justice can be redefined by focusing on broader societal ills. Rather than depending on the outcome of individual cases, as highlighted by the media, activists push for the conceptualization of system failure and justice around social transformation. 

While their data set was small, Chagnon and Phillips nonetheless showed the limits of mainstream media in presenting and advancing the goals of social movements. With growing interest and support in activism, high profile cases have the potential to become symbolic. As social context changes in these coming years, research of future cases may show either lessons learned or that there is more work to be done.

Works Cited

[1] N. Chagnon, and N.D. Phillips, “Like fetching water with a bucket full of holes”: high-profile cases and perceptions of system failure. Critical Criminology (2021). doi: 10.1007/s10612-020-09541-1

[2] Image retrieved from: https://www.pexels.com/photo/roadway-with-end-racism-now-title-in-town-4642503/.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s