Media trial events are often a battleground where notions of justice have to struggle between journalistic freedom and judicial independence. Existing studies present conflicting views on the effects of media coverage on legal trials. With the growing number of media trial events, China is facing the tension between the “legal justice” defined by the courts and the “populist justice” perceived by the public. This study analyses 50 most influential media trial events between 2000 and 2016 in China. We found that government officials and students were dominant types of defendants in such events, and 28% of cases’ judicial decisions were adjusted after the extensive media coverage. By comparing the legal logic of these cases, as shown the courts’ decision assessment documents, with the media logic that was embedded in news coverage of these trials, we then propose an analytic typology to understand the fluid and evolving nature of social justice in this transitional society. We argue that the media-court interactions have constructed four different types of social justice that became dominant in different period of time: consensual justice, tabloid justice, deliberative justice and controversial justice. The temporal and regional variations of these types of justice echo with the political and social transition this authoritarian regime has been through.