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 an explosion in trials by media. Coverage by news media and a proliferation of online content, acting as “the mighty imperial sword”, has led to retrials, with convictions changed and some suspects even spared from prosecution (Cheung, 2014; Liebman, 2005). An increasing number of trials are highly publicized, which has 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, existing research presents conflicting views on media trials. Some researchers argue that media coverage of judicial 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 preventing abuses 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 affect the legal justices. In addition, neither approach—emphasizing press freedom or rule of law—is adequate to build a complete picture of the kind of social justice evolving in today’s China. A narrow focus on the effect of media trials on apparent judicial independence means existing research neglects the fluid and constructed 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 particular characteristics and circumstances” (Cohen, 1986, p. 11). In modern societies, courts act as the formal apparatus administrating retributive justice by determining and apportioning appropriate penalties to the guilty according to law (Hamilton & Rytina, 1980; Kraska, 2006; Lacey, 2007; Surette, 2014). In the court 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 on another (Greer & McLaughlin, 2011; Surette, 2014). And while the public is more concerned about substantive justice in relation to allocating wealth and power in society (Cohen, 1986), professionals and legal 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 a structured constructionist perspective, we will first examine how various forms of social justice are jointly constructed by the media and the courts in a transitional society. And then we will empirically test the above conflicting views with the collection of media trial cases in China. To what extent and under which conditions does media logic compete against or reinforce legal logic in defining social justice? What are the decision-making processes in the courts and in media when a trial is publicized? To what extent and in which way do media trials affect the legal decisions?To answer these questions, we will conduct thorough case studies on a range of media trials since 2000 (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 to release their DADs to the public. These documents form a relatively systematic data source that shows the logic behind court decisions and offers a neutral lens through which to observe the effect of societal and political forces on the courts. To examine the media logic, we will study news articles on a selection of cases. We will also conduct a series of in-depth interviews of journalists and legal experts to examine how they perceive social justice and how such perceptions affect their professional practices. This study will not only reveal the nature of social justice in a transitional society, but also shed light on the nuanced relationship between the media and the courts—and its impact on Chinese society.


Project number9042599
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/01/18 → …