Constructing Social Justice: The Evolving Media–court Relation and Media Trials in China

Project: Research

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In the past two decades, China has gone from extremely restricted reporting of court cases to anexplosion in trials by media. Coverage by news media and a proliferation of online content, acting as “themighty imperial sword”, has led to retrials, with convictions changed and some suspects even spared fromprosecution (Cheung, 2014; Liebman, 2005). An increasing number of trials are highly publicized, whichhas inevitably created a dilemma as “legal justice” defined by the courts goes up against “populist justice”perceived by the public. Media trials become the battlefield of different notions of justice.Emphasizing the tension between journalistic freedom and judicial independence, existingresearch presents conflicting views on media trials. Some researchers argue that media coverage ofjudicial trials can sway legal proceedings and harm the fairness of trials (Chen & Zhang, 2011; Kando,1990; Landau, 1976; Liebman, 2005, 2011; Phillipson, 2008; Wei, 2002). Others are more optimistic;since China’s legal system is not yet independent, they see the media in a supervisory role preventingabuses of power and pressuring the courts to act fairly—reinforcing legal justice (He, 1998; Hu, 2009; Shi& Wang, 2008; Zhou, 2004).It is theoretically debatable and empirically ambiguous on to what extent the media trials affectthe legal justices. In addition, neither approach—emphasizing press freedom or rule of law—is adequateto build a complete picture of the kind of social justice evolving in today’s China. A narrow focus on theeffect of media trials on apparent judicial independence means existing research neglects the fluid andconstructed nature of social justice. It exists when “a person receives that to which he or she is entitled,namely, exactly those benefits and burdens that are due the individual because of his or her particularcharacteristics and circumstances” (Cohen, 1986, p. 11). In modern societies, courts act as the formalapparatus administrating retributive justice by determining and apportioning appropriate penalties to theguilty according to law (Hamilton & Rytina, 1980; Kraska, 2006; Lacey, 2007; Surette, 2014). In thecourt of public opinion, however, media coverage is usually driven by commercial interests (Entman,1989; McChesney, 2004), professional routines (Breed, 1955; Gans, 1979), political ideology (Gitlin,1980; Hallin & Mancini, 2004), and audience demands (Chan, 2010; He & Chen, 1998; Stockmann,2013). Populist justice might work in tandem with legal justice on one occasion yet compete against it onanother (Greer & McLaughlin, 2011; Surette, 2014). And while the public is more concerned aboutsubstantive justice in relation to allocating wealth and power in society (Cohen, 1986), professionals andlegal experts tend to focus on justice in relation to fair and impartial procedures (Rawls, 1971). Therefore,this study will do away with the assumption of a single, static concept of social justice. Instead, through astructured constructionist perspective, we will first examine how various forms of social justice are jointlyconstructed by the media and the courts in a transitional society. And then we will empirically test theabove conflicting views with the collection of media trial cases in China. To what extent and under whichconditions does media logic compete against or reinforce legal logic in defining social justice? What arethe decision-making processes in the courts and in media when a trial is publicized? To what extent and inwhich way do media trials affect the legal decisions?To answer these questions, we will conduct thorough case studies on a range of media trials since2000 (2000-16). To explore the legal logic of justice, we will analyze a selection of adjudication decisions(DADs or decision assessment documents, 裁判文?). Many Chinese courts have recently begun torelease their DADs to the public. These documents form a relatively systematic data source that shows thelogic behind court decisions and offers a neutral lens through which to observe the effect of societal andpolitical forces on the courts. To examine the media logic, we will study news articles on a selection ofcases. We will also conduct a series of in-depth interviews of journalists and legal experts to examine howthey perceive social justice and how such perceptions affect their professional practices. This study willnot only reveal the nature of social justice in a transitional society, but also shed light on the nuancedrelationship between the media and the courts—and its impact on Chinese society.


Project number9042599
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/01/188/06/21