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06/08/2020 The Communication Science magazine

Imprisoned Morals: Convicting the Public Mind

hile making fun of the shortcomings of the modern day Roman Empire seems to have become even more of an…


While making fun of the shortcomings of the modern day Roman Empire seems to have become even more of an international pastime since its last presidential election, there is a pressing matter in the United States that tends to be overlooked by the rest of the world. Famously lacking in transparency, the American criminal justice system consists of three main bodies: law enforcement, adjudication, and corrections. The broad complexity of the system and its drawbacks are difficult to encapsulate, with issues such as police misconduct, unfair sentences, and corruption.

Launched in November of 2014, The Marshall Project is a nonprofit journalism organization dedicated to the cause of objectifying the framing of American convicts, while calling attention to the functions and fallacies of the criminal justice system. They present insight into the simultaneous lack and abundance of humanity that exists behind prison bars. The Project is the joint effort of founder Neil Barsky, an American journalist and former hedge fund manager, and editor-in-chief Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times. Their mission statement proclaims that they “seek to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system”. Fittingly, it is named after the late Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights lawyer known for the famous Brown v. Board of Education case, and the first African-American justice of the US Supreme Court, who the founder believes would have been a champion of the criminal justice cause today.

As a non-partisan and non-profit organization, the Project seeks to catalyze change through journalism that informs rather than imposes. Awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2016, they consistently seek to improve the quality of coverage through collaboration with other news outlets and organizations such as VICE and the Columbia Journalism Review. Notable sections of their coverage include “Life Inside”, “We are Witnesses”, and “The Next to Die”. “Life Inside” features nonfiction essays written by those who “work or live inside the criminal justice system”. These can range across a diversity of parole officers, judges, prisoners, lawyers, and more. “We are Witnesses” is a documentary project of 19 videos that create a representative cross-section of testimonials, intimately revealing the criminal justice system as experienced by the people who have encountered it firsthand. Chillingly, “The Next to Die” is solely devoted to counting down all the scheduled executions in the United States. Bringing into stark perspective the consequences of death row, the real-time online countdown generates a sense of helpless urgency towards the convicts.

As an organization, The Marshall Project strives to live up to its promoted ideals of equality and justice. It has an established staff diversity committee, and releases an annual diversity report in which they bare the numbers of representation. As of November 2017, 41% of the staff identify as persons of color, and females consist of approximately 55% of the full staff. On October 9, it was announced that Topeka K. Sam was the first formerly incarcerated woman to join the Project’s Board of Directors.

Despite its honorable intentions, The Marshall Project has been reviewed as “unavoidably ideological”, as the premise of its creation was inspired by a sense of “moral outrage” at the existing status quo. However, in this age of fast facts, fake news, and sponsored publications, these roots can be viewed as a virtue, rather than a vice. Alongside similarly dedicated nonprofit newsrooms such as ProPublica, journalism will hopefully continue to further expand into its age old tradition of amplifying the voices of the voiceless.

Photo by Mitch Lensink via Unsplash

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