Women Behind Bars: Dissecting Social Constructs Mediated by News and Reality TV

  • Jennifer C. ThomasEmail author


This chapter examines the ways in which the watchdog role of the news media oftentimes collides with the bottom-line objective of entertainment media when it comes to stories of women behind bars and notably of their children left behind. These inmates’ true stories are sometimes shadowed behind distorted notions of so-called reality entertainment; their real-life stories become skewed behind the storylines, confusing the viewer with a warped sense of reality. This paper provides an in-depth look at several examples of how traditional and new media, including reality television, profile incarcerated women and their children, and debates the media’s role in the social construction of reality. Finally, the author questions whether the worlds of news and entertainment can coexist when it comes to such coverage, to conclude that though seemingly far-fetched, entertainment can intersect with news if those in decision-making positions in both industries make a commitment to use impactful media strategies.


  1. “50 Years of Sunny Days on ‘Sesame Street’: Behind the Scenes of TV’s Most Influential Show Ever.” The Hollywood Reporter. Last modified February 6, 2019.
  2. “About Beyond Scared Straight.” A&E. Accessed March 21, 2019.
  3. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “The 51st Academy Awards | 1979.” | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Accessed February 11, 2019.
  4. Associated Press. “Kids with a Parent in Prison Face Vast Challenges.” Yahoo. Last modified November 2, 2015.
  5. Barkin, Steve Michael. 2003. American Television News: The Media Marketplace and the Public Interest. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.Google Scholar
  6. “Beyond Scared Straight: Most Memorable Moments (Season 7) | A&E.” YouTube. Last modified December 1, 2014.
  7. “Beyond Scared Straight: Mothers Behind Bars Talk to Teens | A&E.” YouTube. Last modified December 30, 2011.
  8. Bouchet, Stacey, ed. 2008. Children and Families with Incarcerated Parents: Exploring Development in the Field and Opportunities for Growth. The Annie E. Casey Foundation.Google Scholar
  9. Boyette/CNN, Chris. “Key Moments from the O.J. Simpson” CNN. Last modified October 6, 2015.
  10. Bricker, Tierney. “Phaedra Parks Is Not Returning to Real Housewives of Atlanta.” E! Online. Last modified May 8, 2017.
  11. Caves, Richard E. 1964. American Industry: Structure, Conduct, Performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  12. Cecil, Dawn K. Prisons in Popular Culture. Oxford Research Encyclopedias. Last modified April 18, 2018.
  13. “Champions of Change and Sesame Street Initiative—OsborneNY.” Home—OsborneNY. Accessed June 16, 2018.
  14. “Chowchilla.” A&E. Accessed January 13, 2011.
  15. “Coping with Incarceration.” Sesame Street in Communities. Accessed February 16, 2019.
  16. Day, Louis A. 1990. Ethics in Media Communications: Cases and Controversies. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub. Co.Google Scholar
  17. Dowler, Ken, Thomas Fleming, and Stephen L. Muzzatti. 2006. “Constructing Crime: Media, Crime, and Popular Culture.” Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice 48, no. 6: 837–850. Scholar
  18. Epstein, Edward Jay. 1973. News from Nowhere: Television and the News. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  19. Fleisher, Chris. “Learning from Sesame Street.” American Economic Association. Last modified February 1, 2019.
  20. Flock, Elizabeth. “‘Sesame Street’ Tackles Incarceration Through Muppet with Father in Jail—US News.” US News & World Report. Last modified July 17, 2013.
  21. “Follow-Up: Chowchilla, CA.” A&E. Last modified March 21, 2019.
  22. Gray, Tim. 2018. “Before ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians,’ There Was PBS’ ‘An American Family’.” Variety. Accessed February 16, 2019.
  23. Hallin, Daniel C. 1994. We Keep America on Top of the World: Television Journalism and the Public Sphere. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  24. Ho, Rodney. “Apollo Nida Sentenced to Eight Years for Bank Fraud, ID Theft.” Ajc. Last modified July 8, 2014.
  25. “How It’s Unique.” Women’s Prison Association. Accessed March 19, 2019.
  26. “Inside the Bravo Lap of Luxury: Secrets to the Network’s Glamorous Reality TV Success.” The Daily Beast. Accessed January 10, 2016.
  27. “Jessup Women’s Prison.” A&E. Last modified March 3, 2011.
  28. “Joe Giudice Tells How His Family Life Has Changed Since Teresa’s Been in Prison | WWHL.” YouTube. Last modified October 12, 2015.
  29. “Joe Vignati: ‘Beyond Scared Straight’ Is Beyond Common Sense.” Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Accessed December 10, 2015.
  30. “Juvenile Awareness Programs (Scared Straight).” Programs and Practices—What Works in Criminal Justice— Accessed March 20, 2019.
  31. Kern, Jonathan. 2008. Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Koskela, Hille. 2002. “Webcams, TV Shows and Mobile Phones: Empowering Exhibitionism.” Surveillance & Society 2, nos. 2/3: 199–215.Google Scholar
  33. Lowe, Vesna J. 2017. “Public Broadcasting Turns 50.” Carnegie Corporation of New York. Last modified November 3, 2017.
  34. Meloy, Michelle L., and Susan L. Miller. 2011. The Victimization of Women: Law, Policies, and Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Miliann Kang, Donovan Lessard, and Laura Heston. 2017. “Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies—Open Textbook.” Open Books—Open Access Books Published by UMass Amherst Libraries. Last modified June 30, 2017.
  36. Neely, Cheryl L. 2015. You’re Dead? So What? Media, Police, and the Invisibility of Black Women as Victims of Homicide. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.Google Scholar
  37. “Our Impact | Sesame Workshop.” Home | Sesame Workshop. Accessed February 16, 2019.
  38. Pew Charitable Trusts. 2010. Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility. Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts.Google Scholar
  39. “Phaedra and the Kids Visit Apollo in Prison.” Bravo TV Official Site. Last modified March 4, 2016.
  40. Poehlmann, Julie. 2005. “Representations of Attachment Relationships in Children of Incarcerated Mothers.” Child Development 76, no. 3: 679–696. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Psarras, Evie. 2014. “We All Want to Be Big Stars: The Desire for Fame and the Draw to The Real Housewives.” Clothing Cultures 2, no. 1: 51–72. Scholar
  42. Robinson, Matthew B. 2011. Media Coverage of Crime and Criminal Justice. 2nd ed. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.Google Scholar
  43. Sesame Street in Communities. “What Is Incarceration?” YouTube. September 30, 2016.
  44. Silver, Josh, Candace Clement, Craig Aaron, and S. Derek Turner. 2010. Free Press. Last modified May 2010.
  45. “SPJ Code of Ethics.” Society of Professional Journalists | Improving and Protecting Journalism Since 1909. Accessed December 1, 2015.
  46. “This Is How Teresa Giudice Is Doing After Joe Giudice’s Prison Release.” Bravo TV Official Site. Last modified March 18, 2019.
  47. Tompkins, Al. 2012. Aim for the Heart: Write, Shoot, Report and Produce for TV and Multimedia. Washington, DC: CQ Press.Google Scholar
  48. Umamaheswar, J. 2013. “Gendered Representations of Parents Behind Bars: An Analysis of Newspaper Reports.” Punishment & Society 15, no. 3: 274–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Upmalis, Jordan. 2015. “See How the Giudice Family Is Coping Since Teresa’s Departure Blog.” Bravo TV Official Site. Last modified September 14, 2015.
  50. “Watch Arnold Shapiro Interview—Part 1 Video—Beyond Scared Straight | A&E.” A&E. n.d.
  51. “Watch Lorenzo McIntosh Sketches from SNL Played by Kenan” NBC. Accessed January 10, 2016.
  52. “Watch Series Finale: ‘Lights Out!’ Full Episode—Beyond Scared Straight | A&E.” n.d.
  53. “What Happens When Moms Go to Prison.” Child Trends. Last modified October 28, 2015.
  54. “Women, Incarcerated: Investigative Series Shows Systemic Abuses of Women in Prisons and Jails.” RH Reality Check. Accessed January 10, 2016.
  55. “Women Inmates Separate but Not Equal (Paid Post by Netflix from The New York Times).” New York Times. Accessed December 9, 2015.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Associate Professor, Department of Media, Journalism and FilmHoward UniversityWashingtonUSA

Personalised recommendations