[P]recisely because ambivalence makes people more susceptible to changing their minds, the reframing of the death penalty debate has significantly reduced support for capital punishment.
In “The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence,” political scientists Frank Baumgartner, Suzanna DeBoef and Amber Boydstun found that since the mid-1990s, news coverage of the death penalty has increasingly focused on exonerations and wrongful executions. In earlier eras, the debate in the media was more frequently about other issues, such as capital punishment’s constitutionality or cost.
This shift in media coverage, which has highlighted problems in the death penalty’s application, has encouraged the public to evaluate capital punishment in terms of fairness, especially the potential for innocent people to be sent to death row. As a consequence, Baumgartner, DeBoef and Boydstun find that along with a decline in the U.S. murder rate and other high-profile events (such as former Illinois governor George Ryan’s (R) 2001 mass commutation of death row inmates), negative news drove down support for capital punishment.
I wouldn’t say that the media is killing the death penalty, as the headline over at Ezra Klein’s blog does. I’d say, instead, that information about the death penalty is killing the death penalty.
And, in particular, one piece of information:
It turns out that information about innocent people who have been released from death row makes people less supportive of the death penalty. In fact, it matters more than information about the excessive cost, the racial and socio-economic biases, or the general lack of a deterrent effect.
What people really don’t like about the death penalty, when they learn about it, is that it’s irreversible and absolutely riddled with error.
Who would have guessed?!