Prosecutors and Politics Project Releases New Report on Media Coverage of Prosecutors and Their Elections

February 15, 2023

Very little is known about the media coverage that prosecutors receive. UNC School of Law’s Prosecutors and Politics Project (PPP) recently released a report that aims to improve the discussion surrounding media coverage of the criminal justice system more generally and of prosecutors in particular. In “Media Coverage of Prosecutors and Their Elections: Results of a Pilot Study,” PPP looks at prosecutor elections in Arizona, Kansas, New York and Oregon.

Carissa Byrne Hessick
Carissa Byrne Hessick

“Our partnership with Professor Ryan Thornburg at UNC’s Hussmann Journalism school and the seed funding we received from the Vice Chancellor for Research allowed us to conduct this detailed content analysis,”says Carissa Byrne Hessick, director of the Prosecutors and Politics Project and Anne Shea Ransdell and William Garland “Buck” Ransdell, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law.

The study provides a glimpse into the quantity and the quality of the media coverage that prosecutors receive during an election year in print news stories. Specifically, the study quantifies the amount of media coverage, the content of coverage, and the tone of coverage that prosecutors and candidates for prosecutor receive.

The study includes data from a sample of five to ten prosecutor elections in the the four featured states. In total, the study examines 27 prosecutor elections in jurisdictions of varying populations; some of those elections were contested, while others were uncontested. In the contested elections, the study also includes information about the coverage that candidates for the office of prosecutor received. All told, the study examined more than 2,000 articles—every article that mentioned the elected prosecutor or a candidate for the office in the calendar year 2020.

“The mission of the Prosecutors and Politics Project is to better understand the role of prosecutors in a democratic society,” says Hessick. “Most local prosecutors are elected, but we don’t know much about what voters think and know when casting their ballots in those elections. This pilot study allowed us to identify how media coverage helps inform voters, and to identify when it doesn’t.”