Crime, Justice and Media – Summer ’16

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”Martin Luther King Jr. (and Theodore Parker).

“Our visions of technology and design and entertainment and creativity have to be married with visions of humanity, compassion and justice.”Bryan Stevenson


COM 473 – Crime, Justice and Media • TTH 10-1:20

e-mail: (Please allow at least 24 hours for a response. If you don’t get one by then, e-mail me again.) You can also get me on twitter at @jmikelyons.

Course Description

Media narratives have an enormous impact on how we think about crime and justice. News articles, television and movies help shape how we think about crime . In this class we will pull apart these narratives, study them and help reshape them. Students will closely examine media narratives of crime (for example, the “Central Park Five” case of the late 1980s) and their consequences for “tough on crime” legislation and prison policies.

We will also play an active role in shaping narratives through work on The Redemption Project, a multimedia initiative that focuses on men and women serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. This work requires some basic computer skills (advanced multimedia skills like video and audio editing would be great, but are not required) and the willingness to talk on the phone and perhaps in person to people who are incarcerated. Some off-campus travel is also required. These interviews will help us tell stories that place crime and incarceration in a much larger context.

This is more than a class. It involves real people doing real work outside of Saint Joseph’s University. In many cases, the work you do will have real-world consequences for the men and women we work with. Therefore, I reserve the right to ask you to leave the class (drop it or withdraw) if I believe you have engaged in any unethical behavior. This includes using the video/audio clips, images or writing for any purpose other than those spelled out for the class.

Course Objectives

  • Understand and apply the theories and concepts that shape media narratives and their impact on public policy and law.
  • Critically evaluate media narratives of crime and criminal justice.
  • Use digital media tools to craft “disruptive” campaign and policy narratives.

Reading/Watching/Listening Notes

This course requires a lot of reading, watching and listening. I am asking each of you to take notes on each reading that we do for class and share those notes with me in a Google doc. The intention here is to help you express what you did and didn’t understand about the reading, identify some key concepts and terms that are important to know in a discussion of digital media ethics and pose some discussion questions about the readings. Your reading notes are due two hours before class.

These reading notes are a fairly substantial piece of your grade, so don’t go out to lunch on them.

Production work

Just about every Communication Studies class requires production work as a form of learning. This class is no different. We will spend a lot of time talking about how to tell stories using digital tools, including vide and audio. We will be using audio and video interviews that have been gathered over the past year or two and some new interviews that we will conduct during class.

Courtroom Visit

This is a class on the production, deployment and consumption of media narratives.  But to understand how narratives about crime and criminal justice work, you need to experience the way the system works. So a required task in the course is to visit a courtroom in the city criminal court. You are required to go to room 306, which is where all of Philadelphia’s preliminary hearings for murder cases are held. It is nicknamed “murder court.” I will fully brief you before you go.

Prison visits

This class is about identifying and disrupting narratives. A good place to start that process is within ourselves. A requirement of the class is to visit a prison and meet with juvenile lifers, in part to confront your own stereotypes shaped, in part, by media you consume and more importantly to work in solidarity with these men and women to reshape those narratives publicly through The Redemption Project. We will go to Graterford, a maximum security prison about an hour from campus. The school will supply the transportation to and from Graterford.


Reading Notes – 30 percent
Documentary project – 40 percent
Prison visit and reflections (audio) – 10 percent
Central Park 5 essay – 10 percent
Grace Before Dying Essay – 10 percent

Participation and Attendance

Our success as a class requires that everyone attend prepared to contribute. That means having done the readings and required reading notes. Each unexcused absence will be a letter-grade reduction in your final grade.


Projects are due on the date listed on the schedule. Each day late will result in a letter grade deduction. Reading notes are due two hours before class. They will not be accepted after that.

Academic Integrity

No form of academic misconduct will be tolerated in this course. Cheating and plagiarism will result in an immediate fail and you will be reported to the appropriate official in your college. Plagiarism is defined in the Student Code of

Conduct as follows:

  1. Submitting another’s published or unpublished work in whole, in part or in paraphrase, as one’s own without fully and properly crediting the author with footnotes, quotation marks, citations, or bibliographical reference.
  1. Submitting as one’s own original work, material obtained from an individual or agency without reference to the person or agency as the source of the material.
  1. Submitting as one’s own original work material that has been produced through unacknowledged collaboration with others without release in writing from collaborators.

Special Needs

As the father of a child with a learning disability, I am very sensitive to the needs of students with special needs. Please don’t hesitate to contact me about accommodations.

For those who have or think that you may have a disability (learning, physical or psychological), you are encouraged to contact the Office of Student Disability Services as early as possible in the semester. Reasonable accommodations can only be offered to students with current (within 3 years) documentation of the disability and to the extent that such accommodation does not interfere with the essential requirements of a particular course or program.

If you have any questions contact the Office of Student Disability Services.

Schedule (This is a general outline, which could be changed as we go.)

Week 1 – May 17 and 19

Class Introduction  – Moral panics and “the media” and the “Tough on Crime” narrative

Read for Tuesday: “In a Safer Age, U.S. Rethinks Its ‘Tough on Crime’ System,” The New York Times (very quick read).

For Thursday (there are questions with each reading that you should answer in your reading notes). Please jot down things that don’t seem to make sense to you:

  • Read: Body Count: Moral Poverty … And How to Win America’s War Against Crime and Drugs (Ch. 1-2 – pdf) Body Count – Ch. 1-2  This book by 3 eminent sociologists and policymakers is an argument about how we should handle rising crime in the late 1980s. In your reading notes, identify and describe their argument. How are they proposing we deal with crime? What do they mean by “moral poverty.”
  • Read David C. Anderson, Crime and the Politics of Mass Hysteria: How the Willie Horton Story Changed American Justice Crime and the Politics of hysteria – Ch. 1. This a book about the case of William “Willie” Horton, who became an icon of “soft on crime” in the 1980s. Anderson talks about the idea of “expressive justice.” What does he mean by this?
  • Read/Listen: Beth Schwartzapfel and Bill Keller, Willie Horton Revisited This is a recent story about Willie Horton. What do they argue were the lasting legacies of the Willie Horton case?

Week 2 – May 24 and 26

Race, crime and media

  • Read: Sarah Burns, The Central Park 5 (Ch. 1-3)

For reading response:

• Think about some of the ideas that we discussed on Thursday, including expressive justice, the routinization of caricature and the vocabulary of attribution and use them to describe the atmosphere in New York City that the book lays out. What is going on there?

• Describe some scenes from the book that particularly stand out to you as either puzzling or startling. What surprised you?

Tuesday – Courtroom visit – Courtroom 306 – Criminal Justice Center

We will leave from in front of Bronstein Hall. Look for the SJU van. We will try to leave by 9:45.

Here is the schedule for courtroom 306. Some of the cases include:

Victor Gethers
Ativa Jackson and Angel Montanez
Edward Kirby

Be very observant during this visit because I will ask you to write a reflection based on what you observe. So take notes on things that strike you – people’s behavior, the physical structure of the room, the people in the room, the process in the courtroom, your thoughts and emotions as you enter (the building as well as the courtroom), sit down and watch. This will be an audio reflection.

Thursday – Case Study: The Central Park 5 (Ch. 4-6)

Week 3 – May 31 and June 2 – A new narrative?

Case study: Juvenile life without parole and the “decarceration” narrative

Tuesday – Stories of juveniles, justice and juvenile lifers

• Read: Alana Semuels, Why do Some Poor Kids Thrive? – This is an article about the book Coming of Age in the Other America by Stefanie DeLuca, Susan Clampet-Lundquist, and Kathryn Edin. Dr. Clampet-Lundquist will join our class to talk about her work and her experience working in area prisons.
• Read: Liliana Segura, Throwaway People: Teens Sent to Die in Prison Get a Second Chance
• Read: Corey G. Johnson and Ken Armstrong, This Boy’s Life
• Read: Amy Rosenberg, Teen Killers, Prison Lifers, Given a Ray of Hope
• Listen: Juvenile Lifers See Cause for Hope

There are a lot of readings, but they are pretty short.

We spent the first couple of weeks talking about the rise in incarceration rates and the “tough on crime” narrative. After having read and listened to the pieces above, how has the narrative on incarceration and criminal justice changed (at least as evidenced by these pieces)?

Thursday – First person stories of “mass incarceration” and “decarceration”

• Watch: Bryan Stevenson: We Need to Talk About an Injustice
• Read, Cindy Sanford, Letters to a LiferLetters to a Lifer
• Read: “Mitigating Factors”, Commonwealth v. Gonzalez Mitigating Factors
• Watch: Chimamanda Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story

Reading response: What do you think the role of personal narrative is in social change? Why are personal narratives often so persuasive? Reference what you watched and read above as examples. What does Chimamanda Adichie mean by the “danger of a single story”?

Central Park 5 essay due online by the beginning of class.

Today we will watch Lost for Life and I will introduce you to the Documentary project.

Week 4 – June 7 and 9 – Location shooting in Pottstown and West Philly

• Watch: Lost for Life

In addition to the stories in the film, keep an eye out for how it is shot. How do they shoot b-roll? How do they do transitions and provide context?

• Aaron Phillips group: Location shooting in Pottstown
• John Pace group: Brainstorming in Bronstein Hall


• Watch these “Justice Shorts” from Brave New Films:

Vanessa’s 8-year Sentence
Second-Chance Citizens
To Prison for Pregnancy

Watch these as filmmakers and think how they build a story.

• Aaron Phillips group: Log and transfer and storyboarding in Bronstein

• John Pace group: Location shooting in West Philly

Week 5 – June 14 and 16 – Creating “disruptive” narratives


• Read: Lori Waselchuk, Grace Before Dying (this is at the bookstore and you should have it).

This is a book of documentary photography, so it’s 85 percent photographs plus an essay. Please read the essay and look at the photographs carefully.

In your reading response, write about the impact the photographs have on you. Together, what are they “About” – I know the facts of what they are about, but what are they About (What do they represent? What do they tell us about ourselves? Remember that word “ubuntu”? )  How is this book “disruptive” to the typical narratives of prison we hear?


Today we need to talk more about the craft of making a short doc. So find two documentaries here and describe how they deal with the following five things:

• Narration – How do they move the story along?

• How is “texture” created through shots? How do shots vary? Short, medium, long.

• How do they use sound and interviews?

• What is the most compelling part?

Week 6 – June 21 and 23

Production work

June 23 – Graterford audio reflection due.

June 24, 5 p.m. – Video due in MP4 format.