If it bleeds, it leads.

It’s a phrase often used to describe the media’s apparent fixation on reporting crime and violence in order to sell newspapers, drive TV ratings and attract online clicks. But just how much does the media – and, in particular, the evolving powerhouse that is social media – impact the nation’s criminal justice system?

Let’s pick one example: More than 50% of Americans believe gun crime was on the rise between the early 1990s and 2010, a recent survey found. In fact, gun-related slayings plummeted by almost half during that period.

Students in Florida Tech’s Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice program, offered 100% online, will explore how the media shapes and sways public opinion in a new course titled Criminal Justice and the Media.

The course will provide an interactive experience that will foster students’ creativity and critical thinking, said Professor Jim Reynolds, who developed the course with Professor Keith Touchberry.

Reynolds is Academic Program Chair for Criminal Justice and Homeland Security at Florida Tech.

“We offer a practitioner-taught, career-skills oriented program,” said Reynolds, who served almost three decades with the Melbourne (Florida) Police Department, retiring as Deputy Chief of Police, and also was director of the Brevard Police Testing Center.

Students in the new course will investigate how Facebook, Twitter and other social networks are influencing the portrayal of police, victims and criminals, as well as how such online forums are becoming an indispensable tool for law enforcement agencies.

“Social media is now providing alternate viewpoints a voice,” said Reynolds, who wrote recently about the role of new media in Criminal Justice education for The Social Media Beat, a blog of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

We spoke with Professor Reynolds about the Criminal Justice and the Media course and some of the emerging trends in the criminal justice system.

Q. Tell us about your background and how you developed an interest in criminal justice.

I am a retired police command officer with 27 years on the job. I reached the rank of Deputy Chief. I also ran the selection center for our local police academy for four years and have been academic program chair at Florida Tech University Online for six years.

Q. What will students experience in Florida Tech’s new Criminal Justice and the Media course?

Not your parents’ college course. We have designed a far more interactive student experience that will bring their critical thinking and creative skills forward. I believe we get the students far more immersed in media issues than, say, a law class gets them involved with the law.

Q. Although gun-related homicides decreased by 49% nationwide from 1993 to 2010, more than half of Americans believe gun crime has increased, according to the Pew Research Center. What role does the media play in this disconnect between reality and perception?

They hold the keys to social construction of this and many other criminal justice issues by controlling the flow of information. It has become obvious in the last five years how political forces can shape media presentations; Democrats and MSNBC and Republicans and Fox News are the most contrasting examples. Social media is now providing alternate viewpoints a voice in the many controversies we face.

Q. Nearly 96% of U.S. law enforcement agencies use social media, according to a 2013 survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. How are police departments and other agencies incorporating Facebook, Twitter and other social networks?

This is an area the class explores in depth. Just because the agencies use these resources does not mean they use them well. They often use 40 year olds on desk duty instead of Millennials, of whom I believe U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote when he said in a recent opinion that mobile devices are “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

The Boston Police Department did a stellar job managing social media during the [Boston Marathon] bombing and manhunt last year, while the New York Police Department made a huge faux pas by soliciting pictures of people interacting with their officers, and were flooded with violent images from Occupy Wall Street and other encounters.

Q. Why has social media become such a popular law enforcement tool and a part of criminal justice training programs?

Just a few years ago this was a novelty and now it is part of everyday life for almost everybody.  People are becoming actively engaged in their community, the nation, even the world. Criminal justice cannot ignore that. These agencies have traditionally been conservative and slow to embrace change. If they don’t get up to speed, they will become pariahs.

Q. How has the use of social media by law enforcement agencies changed how traditional media reports on the criminal justice system?

The mainstream media knows that the agencies can now package their own message, when for 150-plus years they have been at the mercy of the city editor and the media’s editorial policies.  We have a local station that seems to only promote negative stories about the police; now those agencies can rebut that slanted coverage, instantly and to a broad audience.

Q. How are criminals using social media?

To promote themselves and to actively plan criminal activities. What’s amazing is that they seem to discount the evidentiary nature of their online actions. The new advice from a defense attorney has to be, ‘Don’t talk to the police and don’t post anything on your social media pages!’

Q. The viral nature of Twitter and other social networks allows for the real-time, widespread dissemination of unverified information. How does this impact the work of law enforcement agencies?

This is a significant problem. Media specialists advise constant monitoring of social media and standing policies that allow for swift responses with facts that can be released without endangering investigations and public safety. The fact is that agencies are now tasked with 24/7 vigilance.

Q. The federal judiciary is evaluating the impact of allowing cameras in the courtroom. What are the potential benefits and costs of televising trials and other court proceedings?

The U.S. Supreme Court consistently has said no in their courtroom. I don’t think it has been a big issue in the state and local courts that allow cameras. The truth comes out, but in a slow and boring fashion. Court process is very slow and with usually only a few nuggets of interest buried in a lot of due process motions. I think the audience is very small.

Q. How does Florida Tech’s Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice program prepare students for careers in the criminal justice field?

We offer a practitioner-taught, career-skills oriented program. We don’t teach crime scene technology or arrest techniques; those are police academy topics. We focus on critical thinking, problem solving and time management. The criminal justice knowledge is great, but those three skills are essential in today’s workplace. 

Q. What makes the BA in Criminal Justice program, offered 100% online, a good fit for working professionals?

There’s time management again. Many in the criminal justice field work nights and weekends.  It took me 14 years to get through school when I had to schedule my classes around the times colleges offered them. We have 24/7 access, and a faculty that understands the issues and is prepared to work with students who need some flexibility.

Q. Who are your favorite fictional crime solvers and why?

I like most of the TV detectives because they can, and do, simply ignore the Constitution, policy and procedure to get the job done. It’s satisfying in a way, but pure fiction. The real job is meticulous, time-consuming work with lots of i’s to dot and t’s to cross to get things done right.  What I don’t like is the pervasive and gratuitous violence that we are bombarded with. We take a lot of blood and gore for granted, but the real thing is more unpleasant and traumatizing than most people can possibly imagine.

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