The Social Construction of Justice: Trial-based Media Events and Media–Court Interaction in China


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date22 Jul 2022


Excessive media coverage of judicial trials is often a battlefield where notions of justice are caught in the crossfire between journalistic freedom and judicial independence. Previous studies have formed competing views on the role of media, specifically in high-profile legal cases in China. Using a social constructionist perspective, this study goes beyond the dichotomy of media roles between “trial by media” and “media supervision.” It examines highly publicized judicial trials as trial-based media events in which perceived justice is collectively constructed by the media and the courts. In particular, this study investigates why the media and the courts collaborate in some cases and conflict in others. To answer this question, I first establish an analytical typology to propose four categories of the mechanism of the social construction of justice based on two dimensions: whether the news coverage adopts legal discourse and if the media agrees with or challenges the court decisions.

Through a longitudinal analysis of trial-based media events from 2000 to 2016, I demonstrate how contemporary social conflicts and developments in media and legal institutions shape the transition of the dominant construction mechanism, which transforms from a tabloid justice construction process in the early 2000s to sympathetic justice construction, then to controversial justice construction, and finally collaborative justice construction after 2013. This study shows how trial-based media events with the four social construction mechanisms present different trajectories despite going through three stages of social construction: externalization, objectivation, and internalization. In controversial justice construction, the media unite legal professionals who provide legal discourse to significantly challenge weak legal institutions. In the sympathetic justice construction, the media adopt an extra-legal discourse to arouse public sympathy toward socially disadvantaged defendants to call for a change in legal decisions while confronted with hardline courts sticking to legal principles. The collaborative justice construction unfolds in two patterns: Either the state intervenes and coordinates the courts and the media to solve cases of social injustice that are first exposed by the investigative journalism, or the courts turn the redress of wrongful conviction into media events and monopolize the information, thus forcing the media to follow. In the tabloid justice construction, the public resentment stimulated by the class stratification leads to both media stigmatization and harsh legal sentences for the privileged defendants.