“What’s the Story?” Reflection: The Marshall Project Monthly Speakers Series and the Power of Media

This past Fall, The Marshall Project launched, “What’s the Story?”, a monthly speaker series that highlights how narratives and media impact criminal justice policies and practices. The latest event on January 23, 2019 featured Tayari Jones, Piper Kerman, and David Simon. All three spoke powerfully about how broadcast and print media can shape perceptions and drive the narrative around criminal justice.

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Most of the event discussion focused on the opportunities that storytellers have in re-framing, unlocking, and adding nuance to the criminal justice narrative. Jones discussed how her novel, An American Marriage, brings attention to a wife left behind as her husband is sent to prison; Kerman spoke about how her novel shed light on the often hidden life behind bars; and Simon spoke about the regularity in which he watched and witnessed corner drug deals in Baltimore and the need to expose the realities of what it means to be a “drug-dealer.”

The more we understand the complexities of these situations, the better positioned we are to evaluate them and to discuss real, sustainable, comprehensive policy solutions. The three speakers, through the power of storytelling, have all played essential roles in revealing deeper insights into what are often one-dimensional stories.

But what happens when the narratives that are portrayed on television and in print are false? What happens when these false narratives enter the mainstream and how can we highlight and change them and allow more truths to be portrayed? Specifically, this conversation made me think of the ever-popular show Law and Order.

In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important groups: The police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders.”

Many people, by simply hearing the show’s theme song, would quickly recognize and be able to repeat this opening sequence. And yet, it is such a damning and inaccurate portrayal of the criminal justice system. Staunch public defense reform advocate Jon Rapping repeatedly makes the point that the opening sequence singles out only two essential professions, yet makes no mention of the critical role of defense attorneys in our criminal justice system. Not only does the opening sequence leave out the essential role of defense counsel, it also segments the idea of who “the people” are and who receives representation.

Therefore, on one side, you have “the people” (also known as the complainants) who are represented by the police and district attorneys; on the other side you have “offenders,” whom you later learn are represented by defense attorneys. In reality, both groups make up the people.  Defense attorneys are protectors of the people and their individual rights, ensuring that all of us receive the protections we are entitled to by law and the U.S. Constitution. Without defense attorneys to protect our liberty, the government wields great and unchecked power, and the system cannot be held accountable. To make a criminal justice system just and run as intended, public defense providers and prosecutors must be present and awarded the time and resources necessary to protect all people.

So, what do we do now? This false narrative promoting the two separate, but equally important, groups in the criminal justice system has permeated the mainstream. Viewers love the show; so how do we reframe the false narrative with more accurate accounts and still tell a good story? Is it possible to change existing narratives or do we need to tell entirely new stories? Are we doing enough to tell real stories that counteract this narrative? I don’t have all the answers, but I will continue to highlight the “other” narrative and continue to support all the great work that others are doing to share these stories, and I hope you will join me in doing so as well.


Genevieve Citrin Ray is a Senior Policy Advisor and the Project Director of the Right to Counsel (R2C) National Campaign. Interested in learning the narrative on the right to counsel and public defense? Check out R2C’s public opinion survey report, Americans’ Views on Public Defenders and the Right to Counsel