Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Crime news as a cultural ink-blot

A happy ending to a frightening story: The sickly infant abducted in Lubbock, Texas, earlier this week has been found and reunited with her mother. A 33-year-old woman has been arrested.

Much has been made -- in the blogosphere and mainstream media -- about the perceived tendency by news reporters to focus on missing or murdered white women and children while ignoring missing or murdered women and children of color. In this case, the baby was Hispanic, born to a single Hispanic mother, but is it possible the media are not color-blind in such cases? Can all the headlines be condensed to "Beautiful White Woman Murdered In Sex-Related Slaying"?

Proponents of this position herald Natalee Holloway, Nicole Brown-Simpson, Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson and Jennifer Wilbanks as examples of the national-media bias. And it's hard to hold up examples of women of color in similar circumstances. But is it truly a matter of racial bias ... or possibly just the need of the national media to have a story with a special emotional twist?

The American Society of Newspaper Editors estimates 13 percent of journalists at newspapers are minorities (including Hispanics). In TV newsrooms, minorities make up about 22% of the workforce, according to the Radio-Television News Directors Association. About 32% of the U.S. population is non-white or Hispanic. (USA Today, 6/15/05) Does that lead to a bias in story choices?

But not every "white woman in peril" story makes the front page of the NY Times or prime-time CNN, so immediately a viewer/reader must ask what makes these cases special? I propose, modestly, it's not color but the uniqueness of the case. The more mystery and intrigue, the higher the news value.

As the managing editor of a mid-sized daily newspaper, I assure readers that the color of the victim is of absolutely no importance to news decisions, except in crimes where race is central ... I'm more interested in the extraordinary circumstances. The 10th fatal mugging at a midnight subway platform by a gangster is less intriguing than the discovery of a grandmother's corpse in a public park and the realization that her 4 grandchildren are now missing. Which would you put on the front page?

Here's another twist you won't hear about: Men also get ignored generally in such cases. FBI statistics show men are more likely than women to be reported as missing, and that blacks make up a disproportionately large segment of the victims. On May 1. 2005, there were 25,389 men in the FBI's database of active missing persons cases, and 22,200 cases of women. Blacks accounted for 13,860 cases, vs. 29,383 whites. (USA Today, 6/15/05)

Should men rise up and demand equal attention from Nancy Grace or Greta van Susteren? Why is there no hue and cry to probe crimes against men as much as we apparently probe crimes against pretty, white women?

Facts have no moral quality, only what we project upon them.

Crime news is like a cultural ink-blot test, in which society looks at a set of insensate, numb facts and projects its own history, fears, impatience, insolence, clemency, insecurities, dreams — and nightmares — upon those facts.

In theory, we are not really describing the ink blots, but something inside ourselves. And what’s inside is every fairy-tale monster: A brutal ogre, a bloodthirsty werewolf, an elegant vampire, a bullying giant, a scheming devil, a predatory wolf, a sneering troll, or maybe just an abusive step-mother.

The archetypes of our fears have trickled into every heart. And when a crime captures the public’s imagination before a trial, the great majority of citizens are already projecting the monsters of our collective mythology onto the suspects.

And that's a bigger part of choosing the stories on the front page than the color of the victims.


SingingSkies said...

hmmm....You may have something there, especially when it comes to those cases which transcend the local news cycle. There certainly seems to be something which taps into our primal fears in those crime stories that make the national/international news.

However, since I, too, come from within the cultural 'majority', I have to wonder if there might not also be a subconscious bias at work. I'm not saying there is. What I am saying is that in other settings I've discovered that my perspective is informed by my experiences and expectations, much to my chagrin sometimes.

I lived in Beaumont when it became a stickpin on the map of a serial killer. In fact, the young, beautiful, white woman who was abducted by this killer was discovered missing because she didn't come to pick up her children from the LU day school where I worked.

I almost hate to say it, but, in the climate of that day and time here in the Golden Triangle, I'm not so sure that it would have hit the local news as quickly if it had been one of the African-American mothers who turned up missing.

Things have improved significantly here in the years since then. And it did turn out that the events here in Beaumont were part of a rampage which tapped into those archetypes you speak of. I recall watching/reading the news in captive fear as women turned up missing and dead in a wild cross-country race to the man's death near the Canadian border.

I also wonder how much our visual media fascination with fictional crime drama and the fact that so many of those shows depict 'young, beautiful, white women' as victims of crime affects the perception that unless you are young, white, and female, or a young child, you are effectively invisible to the media as a whole. (Well, unless you've somehow gotten yourself mixed up with a mafia related crime, that is.)

Of course, perception does not necessarily imply fact. For me, hearing of another's perception jogs me to a broader awareness and examination of the facts, which in turn may lead me to a more inclusive (and thereby correct?) conclusion.

That Cleaning Lady said...

This small community has had more than its share of media attention over the years since I moved here in 1990. I too wonder just how much is media-bias that makes the "news" that is news worthy. We had our own beautiful white woman and her daughter murdered here about 10 years ago. The coverage was haunting and the anniversary follow-up story was too graphic and disturbing. I'd like to see a lot more personal responsiblity taken by the media for what they write and print.