This post originally appeared on Moms in the Lobby. Reposted here with permission.
Newsweek recently featured a web exclusive on How the Media Treat Murder. The article’s focus is on the underreported story of a possible serial killer in the small town of Rocky Mount, North Carolina.
Ten women have been found slain or have been declared missing in Rocky Mount, N.C., in recent years. But the rest of the country hasn’t heard about a possible serial killer stalking the young women in this Southern town of 60,000. The latest victim, Elizabeth Jane Smallwood, was identified on Oct. 12. Why have the Rocky Mount homicides been largely ignored?
“When you think about the famous missing-person cases over the last few years it’s Chandra Levy, Natalee Holloway, and Laci Peterson,” notes Sam Sommers, associate professor of psychology at Tufts University. All these women had a few things in common—they were white, educated, and came from middle-class families. The victims in Rocky Mount—which residents describe as a “typical Southern town,” and is about 40 percent white and more than 50 percent black—were different. They were all African-American, many were poor, and some had criminal histories including drug abuse and prostitution.
Unfortunately, this level of blindness is an all-too-common characteristic of the media when it comes to crimes against people of color. The article goes on to suggest that national media may be the worst about selecting for race when reporting on crime:
‘Nancy Grace called and wanted to have some of us on her show, but before it aired there was a white woman from Georgia that went missing. The Nancy Grace show was canceled,’ [city-council member and president of the local NAACP chapter, Andre] Knight says. HLN network, which broadcasts Nancy Grace, confirmed that Knight was booked for the show, which was ultimately canceled to profile the disappearance of Kristi Cornwell, a white woman from Blairsville, Ga., who went missing during an evening walk. Representatives from Nancy Grace told NEWSWEEK, ‘The booking was changed due to news that was breaking that day,’ and emphasized the change had nothing to do with the race of the victim. On Aug. 12, Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees covered the story.
I’m no fan of Nancy Grace and this story is partly why. Despite her best attempts to portray what she does as an important service for the social good, her tactics and her focus on certain sensationalized cases suggest she’s mostly out for attention (and perhaps media martyrdom, swoon).
Many times I’ve wondered where are all the missing black kids? or Latino kids? or Asian kids (up until and perhaps beyond the case of Annie Le)? A trip to the website for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children shows racially-proportional and accurate alerts to the abductions and disappearances of our nation’s children. According to studies done by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the Department of Justice, non-white children make up 42% of the total number of missing children, while they only comprise 36% of the U.S. population. Yet we rarely see these kids’ cases on the national news.
Much of this has to do with the media’s desire to present a compelling narrative, rather than an accurate report of crime incidents in the community. One MSNBC reporter, Alex Johnson, writing on the subject calls this “Catnip for TV types.” Johnson cites Roy Peter Clark, vice president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., talking about the way journalists choose a story:
‘The example of a bad murder would be the murder of an African-American person from a poor neighborhood,’ he said. ‘The definition of a good murder is a socialite killed by her jealous husband, the debutante murdered by her angry boyfriend.’When it comes to police stories, Clark said, there is ‘this perverted, racist view of the world. White is good; black is bad. Blonde is good; dark is bad. Young is good; old is bad. And I think we can find versions of this story going back to the tabloid wars of more than a hundred years ago.’
Even more frightening is what advocates on the ground experience trying to get media attention for the sake of finding victims or delivering justice for their families:
‘We can’t get a young girl who may be suffering substance abuse and may be prostituting on the national news because they feel she’s not worth the time,’ said Kym Pasqualini, president of the National Center for Missing Adults in Phoenix. ‘But these individuals are no less important to their families, and their families are entitled to the same help’ in getting their cases before the public. ‘We have found that it’s far easier for our agency to obtain national coverage on an individual who society, I think, identifies with,’ she said.
While all of this is alarming and deeply disturbing, it isn’t all that unexpected. When one considers that our justice system has its own virulent strains of prejudice and inherent inconsistencies, it’s not terribly off-base that elements of the media covering crime would more than mirror, even magnify, the problem. Most executions (80%) are carried out against defendants with white victims, even though half of all homicide victims are black. Juries, studies show, are more likely to exact the ultimate penalty against a defendant whose victim is white.
These crimes, particularly the crimes against children, are terrifying realities for any mom. I cannot imagine the pain of a mother denied justice not only by the actual justice system, but again by members of the media who are more intent on selling a story to white America than on reporting the important details about a crime to all of us in this country.
It’s tragic enough when our children are lost. That tragedy is only compounded when our compassion and our attention is likewise missing.