In Exonerations, How You Communicate Matters

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Central Park 5 after their release from prison. Courtesy Netflix

On May 23, 2019, a North Carolina judge ordered the release of Charles Finch.

Finch was arrested in February, 1976 for the murder of a gas station owner during a robbery. That summer, he was convicted and sentenced to death, though his sentence was commuted to life in prison when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down North Carolina’s death penalty statute.

For over 40 years, Finch maintained his innocence. It was not until Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic took the case and uncovered a litany of mistakes—the state’s failure to turn over exculpatory evidence and problems with eyewitness and ballistics evidence—that the court became convinced of his innocence and ordered his release.

When the wheelchair-bound 81-year-old exited prison, he said simply, “I’m just glad to be free.”

Finch is one of the longest-serving exonerees in the United States. His story is harrowing, a tale of justice gone awry.

Perhaps more concerning is that Finch is just one of thousands who have suffered the injustice of a wrongful conviction. It may be shocking for some to learn about these institutional failures, but an important question remains: Do these individual stories change public opinion?

For decades, researchers have explored framing. Put simply, framing refers to the way information is presented or communicated.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, we evaluated how different presentations of information about wrongful convictions affected people’s attitudes.

We presented one group of people with a thematic frame, which puts an issue in a more general or societal context. This entailed providing them with basic facts and figures about wrongful convictions.

Others were presented with an episodic frame. Rather than emphasizing broad patterns, we focused on an individual story of wrongful conviction. These respondents read a short story about a wrongful conviction similar to what might be found in a newspaper, based loosely on the real case of Kirk Bloodsworth.

Put another way, we presented one group with numbers and a second with a narrative, and compared their attitudes to people who were not presented any information about wrongful convictions.

We found that both numbers and narratives change people’s opinions—but in different ways. When people were presented with numbers about wrongful convictions, it reduced their support for the death penalty and their trust in the justice system.

When people were presented with a narrative of wrongful conviction, it reduced their support for the death penalty even more. And while it did not change their overall trust in the system, it increased support for reforming police practices and their personal concern that they, or someone they know, might be wrongly convicted.

In short, both numbers and narratives change public opinion, but people respond differently to them.

Stories and Statistics in Crime and Law

Criminological research, like most scientific endeavors, is often rooted in statistical analyses of large-scale patterns that speak to broader trends in society.

Many people are already aware of the facts about mass incarceration in the U.S.

Too often ignored, however, is that each of those numbers represents more than a data point; they are human stories. They represent people who lost their freedom, whose significant others lost partners and parents.

Similarly, in the world of wrongful convictions, we know that almost 2,500 people have been exonerated since 1989. Collectively, they have lost nearly 22,000 years of their lives.

But these numbers represent only a fraction of wrongfully convicted individuals in prison. Recent estimates suggest that as many as 6 percent of prisoners and about 4 percent of people sentenced to death may be innocent. Put in bolder relief, there may be upwards of 13,000 innocent people incarcerated and more than 100 innocent individuals on death row in the U.S. today.

These horrifying numbers are repeated regularly among scholars and advocates. But are they as powerful as a single story of injustice?

 Take the recent Netflix hit, When They See Us.

The series depicts the infamous Central Park Jogger case, in which five Black and Latino teenagers were coerced into confessing to the brutal rape and attempted murder of a woman in New York’s Central Park in 1989. The boys spent between six and 13 years incarcerated after their wrongful convictions.

Cultural Firestorm

At the time, the case created a cultural firestorm, with politicians and other prominent figures rushing to judgment about the case amid a media frenzy. Most notably, Donald Trump paid more than $80,000 to take out full-page newspaper ads urging New York to “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY.”

Thirty years later, we are witnessing a cultural firestorm of a different order. Since its release, When They See Us has been watched by more than 23 million people, making it one of the most-watched shows in Netflix’s history. It has sparked calls for the president to apologize to the five men and has led others involved, who built their careers on the case, to step down from prominent positions.

Linda Fairstein, at the time the head of the District Attorney Office’s sex crimes unit who became a prominent figure in the law enforcement community and a bestselling novelist, was dropped by her publisher and has stepped down from several board positions.

And prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer recently said she would no longer keep her position as a lecturer at Columbia Law School.

When They See Us managed to create a cultural and social spark about wrongful convictions in a way that is only rivaled by a few hits in the area of criminal justice, like the podcast Serial and Netflix’s Making a Murderer, all of which focus on compelling stories.

Does this suggest stories are that much more powerful and persuasive than general facts? Should we ditch the focus on numbers and statistics, and focus instead on telling individual narratives of injustice?

In short, the answer depends on which attitude you want to change.

What Prompts Change?

The results of our study offer some object lessons for both policymakers and activists.

Information has the power to change people’s attitudes and behavior. But as our study found, deciding on the best way to present information depends on what goals you seek to achieve.

If you want people to think broadly about systems and society, numbers are effective.

If the goal, however, is to spark change and encourage people to support policy reform, stories are better-suited to the task.

In our study, we saw this effect with a single story. Yet exonerations occur regularly. In recent years, there have been an average of about three exonerations per week; this year alone, there have been more than 75. And our story consisted of only text. In all likelihood, the way many people consume such narratives, through visual mediums like documentaries and film, creates an even stronger reaction than we found.


Director Ava DuVernay appears on Oprah to discuss her Central Park 5 documentary, seen in over 190 countries. Courtesy Netflix

Stories are powerful. Narratives help us make sense of the world around us and our place in it. One reason a show like When They See Us has such a profound impact on people is that they can see themselves or those close to them in it. Viewers transport themselves, their families, and friends into the situation, and imagine it in a way that is more visceral, more real, than simply reading numbers.

Stories trigger emotions—sadness, anger, concern—and create a desire for changes to prevent such further travesties.

As the innocence movement continues to grow, its biggest asset in the fight for justice is its collection of stories. Putting the men and women who suffer at the forefront may be the most effective way to influence practitioners, policymakers, and the public.

Mother Teresa said, “If I look to the masses, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

In research, we often forgo the stories for the statistics. Yet we must keep in mind the former, for they help us see not the masses but the one—and when we see the one, we act.

Robert Norris is an assistant professor of Criminology, Law, and Society at George Mason University. His most recent book was Exonerated: A History of the Innocence Movement (NYU Press, 2017. Kevin Mullinix is an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas. His research has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and several other journals.

4 thoughts on “In Exonerations, How You Communicate Matters

  1. Wrongful conviction of innocent persons is more prevalent and common than anyone could ever know. Up until this point, people stayed quiet for fear of being called crazy or retaliation on their loved one. Mostly because defense and appeals attorneys tell you to be quiet. Well now people are just plain angry and nobody is staying quiet anymore.

    • Jamie:

      No one should ever be quiet about injustice.

      Nor should we make statements that lack the important step of fact checking/vetting.

      I am sure you agree.

  2. Gentlemen:

    As a, seemingly, forgotten bit of factual importance, it seems foundational to determine if the “Exonerations” have either 1) been proven actual innocent by judicial ruling or state law or 2) fit into well known perverted definitions of “exonerations”, which have no consideration of actual innocence. This has been a well known problem for about two decades.

    That would be an important matter to communicate. Yes?

  3. Gentlemen:

    You write:”More than two million people are incarcerated nationwide;The U.S. holds 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners”

    What you left out, again, goes to the importance of how one communicates and what one intends to communicate and the huge importance of omission, in context.

    For example, Patrick A. Langan, senior statistician at the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, calculated that tripling the prison population from 1975 to 1989 may have reduced “violent crime by 10 to 15 percent below what it would have been,” thereby preventing a “conservatively estimated 390,000 murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults in 1989 alone.”

    390, 000 in 1989, alone. From 1989 to 2006 the incarceration population nearly doubled to 2.3 million.

    From 1975 through 2018, from increased incarceration, alone, the US prevented some 25 million murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults.

    Does that matter in communicating that the US has two million criminals incarcerated? Of course.

    But it was not mentioned.

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