Popular Culture and Media Literacy in the Classroom

Public opinion doesn’t have a law degree.

—House of Cards (2012)


Despite the importance which the production of popular culture and other media stories has for legal and criminal justice practice, higher education programs fail to help students develop media literacy and do not adequately prepare them to produce and analyze popular culture works and other media texts.


As discussed in the previous chapter, the law and popular culture literature identified two gaps in the field: the use of popular culture works as primary sources for law teaching and the absence of the analysis of the conventions of legal popular culture in the law school and law-related university curricula (Elkins, 2007). The previous chapter dealt with the first issue. This chapter will focus on the second gap. Despite the importance that the production of popular culture and other media stories has for the legal and criminal justice practices, law schools and criminal justice university progr ams have traditionally neglected to prepare their stirdents to be producers of popular culture and other media stories.

The objective of this chapter is to highlight the importance of helping stirdents develop media literacy at the law school and criminal justice settings and to offer some examples of deep learning activities aimed at fostering media literacy in the law school and university contexts. I will start this chapter by discussing the role of lawyers and criminal justice agents in the production of popular culture stories and other media texts, including their participation in the construction of news stories and the production of media texts to use in connection with a case, such as videotaped depositions, videotaped crime scenes, a day-in-the life of videos, progressive videos, settlement brochures, living plaintiff documentaries, multimedia closing arguments, sentencing mitigation videos, visual petitions to administrative bodies, and clemency videos.

Because most of these audiovisual and media texts are used in court, I will also analyze the regulations to make these texts. I will then briefly examine the evolution of media literacy and its cunent marginal role in higher education. I will then stress the importance of teaching media literacy in legal and criminal justice education contexts. Finally, I will discuss some activities aimed at fostering the development of media literacy in law school and criminal justice university courses.


In Gone But Not Forgotten (Mastroianni, 2005), Betsy Tannenbaum, a criminal defense attorney, knows how to play the press game. She knows the ethics rules and legislation in California that apply to lawyers in their relations with media. More important, she understands that media speak a language that is radically different from the language lawyers and criminal justice professionals speak. Betsy is always prepared to talk to the press. She knows she can expect reporters at any time—at her office, outside the courthouse, and at her clients’ premises. She never avoids reporters. She is always ready. Every day at her office, Betsy Tannenbaum sits down and carefully prepares message points that she wants to communicate to the press. These are short and catchy statements, crafted in the language that reporters use. Each of these message points could be headlines in newspapers and magazine articles. When she talks to the press, she is highly articulate. She avoids legal jargon and long explanations about legal doctrine or procedure. If necessary, she is prepared to offer written brief explanations of her client’s position. She is also aware of body language. She looks confident, yet friendly. She sounds assertive, polite, and intelligent. Most of the times, her statements are quoted in the press. Sometimes, they make headlines. When reporters insist on hying to make her say something that she does not agree with, she always comes back to her message points. For example, when questioned about her client’s nonguilty verdict in a high profile battered woman syndrome defense case, Ms. Tannenbaum is concise, accurate, and quotable: “The verdict shows that a person has a right to defend herself.” When pressed, when television, radio, and print media reporters insist and ask her if she believes that the verdict is unfair, if it means that murder is now legal, Betsy Tannenbaum stays on message. “[My client] was in a private battlefield of abuse. She had to make a stand to save her life.”

Betsy is also a frequent guest in radio and television talk shows. She understands the special rhythm that radio and television impose. So, her answers are veiy concise—even more so than when she is interviewed by print media journalists. Still, her answers always leave the door open for further questions. Betsy is always dressed in impeccable outfits. She wears dark-colored skirted suits that fall at or below her knees. Her attires command respect, inspire trust, and convey a polished, professional image.

Her quotes in the media and her guest appearances in radio and television give her a unique marketing opportunity. Media coverage gives her recognition as an authority figure in criminal law. As part of her branding strategy, Betsy Tannenbaum has a proactive attitude toward media. She partners with a professional journalist, Nora Sloane (Robin Riker), to write the story of one of her clients and, indirectly, her own story. Betsy knows this will help her win her case, and at the same time, it will give her more media coverage and public recognition. Furthermore, she is aware that media exposure “plays a major role in reshaping public opinion, and ultimately, criminal justice policy” (Beale, 2006). For this purpose. Betsy spends hours talking to Norah about the case and about her life. She suggests Norah shadow her in court and in her office. In order to make the story more human and appealing to readers, Betsy agrees to let Nora interview Betsy’s ex-husband (David Lee Smith). Betsy and Nora also agree to sit down and try to write part of the story together.

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