Friday, January 02, 2004

Unequal Press Coverage of Justice II

Continuing on yesterday's observation about the different treatment given by the media to the Tate and Abraham cases as compared to the King brothers, I wish to speculate a bit as to why the media treated the cases differently - and why they will continue to treat such cases very differently based upon the appearance and background of the child. The short version is "stereotypes".

Stereotyping is not inherently bad - even though it causes cognitive distortions. Stereotypes are both a natural and invaluable part of how our minds process information in an efficient and useful manner. At the same time, a stereotype is not likely to be universally true, and some will be wildly incorrect - and it is thus important to work to recognize when we are relying upon stereotypes, and to be willing to revisit our assumptions - our prejudices - when there is cause to do so. This is often a lot harder than it sounds.

The depiction of Tate as a deceitful, murderous thug fit the greater societal stereotype for an African American child murderer, and that stereotype affected both the coverage and the manner in which the public responded. It didn't much matter that Tate had never before been in trouble with the law, and at present the public has little patience for the notion that even a mentally slow black child should not be held completely responsible for a homicide. Abraham's case was an even better fit for that stereotype, and the prosecutors in his case were more than eager to share his past criminal history to try to paint him as what various politicians have deemed a "super predator" - a child born and bred to be a remorseless, violent, and incurable criminal, who should be locked up forever. His mental deficiencies were regarded as making him more dangerous, as opposed to more deserving of treatment, support or rehabilitation. Under this stereotype, the neglect and abuse he suffered as a child were part of what turned him into a "super predator", and were thus again not factors which mitigated the greater public reaction. Thus, in the minds of many people, there was no problem in pretending that a developmentally delayed, illiterate, eleven-year-old whose childhood was a tale of abuse and neglect was an "adult".

The King boys, on the other hand, didn't automatically fit the "super predator" stereotype. By the time they hit the news, they had been cleaned up and dressed in neat, middle class garb. They benefited also from the fact that a convicted child molestor had involved himself with them, may have molested the younger brother, and may have played a role in the killing. With or without his involvement, though, the kids did not "look like" super predators, and despite a background considerably less stable than that of Tate the public reacted to them quite differently. That is not to say that a white child cannot fit the "super predator" profile and be treated every bit as harshly as Tate or Abraham - but such a white child is much more likely to be a teenager, and to be "scary" in other ways - like the three teens in Arkansas whose unorthodox appearance and behavior, and supposed involvement with satanism, made it almost natural to accept that they could be responsible for the gruesome murder of three eight-year-old boys. This is, of course, an international phenomenon, although the stereotypes differ from nation to nation. The two ten-year-old boys who killed young James Bulger in England were subjected to a media frenzy and negative stereotyping to much the same effect as was seen in the Abraham case. (The furur continues, with a public outcry over the fact that the two boys were issued new identities upon their release from eight years of imprisonment, due to well-grounded fears of vigilantism. The possibility that the two boys might be completely reformed, or that confinement from the age of ten through eighteen is in many senses "a lifetime" for the offender, doesn't mesh with the stereotypes which drive "get tough" measures against young offenders, and is thus difficult to advance.)

Another aspect of stereotypes is that they can be abused in an extremely manipulative manner, and are often carefully constructed and propogated by special interests in order to cause us to make incorrect assessments or judgments. Karl Rove is reportedly working on an ad campaign that will depict Howard Dean as a pessimist - with the hope being that they can lodge that stereotype in the public psyche such that it colors our initial reaction to anything Dean says or does. Industry lobbyists have worked hard to depict "tort reform" as a fight against frivolous lawsuits, despite the fact that their efforts are almost invariably directed at limiting recovery in meritorious lawsuits where the plaintiff has suffered the most serious injuries. The stereotype that Democrats are not fiscally responsible permits Bush to arguably be the most fiscally irresponsible President in U.S. history while simultanously convincing large numbers of Americans that he is fiscally responsible and that the Democrats (who handed him a budget surplus) would not be. Reagan exploited stereotypes about welfare, convincing significant numbers of Americans that the typical recipient was an undeserving "Cadillac-driving welfare queen" - with the implicit understanding that we were speaking of black women. And, as alluded to above, it permits politicians to depict a fictitious class of child and teen "super predators", and to justify a wide range of excpetionally harsh punishments and the reduction in rehabilitative efforts for young offenders.

Once a stereotype of this place is lodged in the public consciousness, it is difficult to overcome. It tends to be impressed upon media coverage - after all, reporters are people too, and are subject to the foibles of their very human brains - and each express or implicit repetition reinforces the perceptions of a public disinclined to reexamine its prejudices. There have been numerous cases where a white offender has killed his or her spouse (or even his children), and has blamed a fictional intruder for the offense - make it a scary black man, and the media is usually happy to present sympathetic coverage until police investigation reveals the lie. A couple of years ago the Chicago Police were so quick to adopt the "super predator" stereotype with two African American boys, aged seven and eight, that they bungled the investigation and all-but-certainly let a convicted child molester get away with molesting and murdering an eleven-year-old girl.

The media has a greater responsibility than the individual to guard against this type of prejudice, as the media plays a significant role in the creation and perpetuation of incorrect stereotypes, and can be a significant power in their defeat. The mainstream media also has the resources to fact-check most of what it publishes, and with proper care can do a much better job of avoiding the propogation of false stereotypes. Unfortunately, today's media seems more inclined to advance stereotypes, and in the case of the so-called "conservative" media, does so quite unapologetically.


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