Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Media's Morbid Obsessions... and Race

I agree with Kiri Blakeley's criticism that the media forms a morbid obsession with certain murder cases and gives them far more coverage than they deserve, and that the Casey Anthony trial falls into that category. But of all the reasons not to pay attention to the trial, I find this one to be weak:
But, most of all, I just find it—put it politely— selective. Virtually every month in New York City a young child is murdered either by his or her mother or the mother’s boyfriend or the adult responsible for the child—and hardly any of them ever gets the kind of national round-the-clock media coverage that Caylee Anthony’s death is receiving.
Look, I'm not going to argue that the media will find newsworthy a story from a wealthy suburb that might pass with little or no mention in an impoverished neighborhood. And yes, that often (but not always) means that the media lavishes on crimes against white families while giving scant coverage to similar crimes against minority families. But, as the very high-profile coverage of the Menendez brothers' murder trial helps illustrate, the issue there is more complicated than just race. Crimes against high-income individuals in low-crime areas are less common, tend to get more aggressive police investigation, and tend to involve defendants who for one reason or another are better able to defend against the charges. (Even if the defendant is poor, their defense team is apt to receive more funding and more access to investigators and experts by virtue of the associated publicity.)

I once watched part of a trial in which a mother was convicted of starving her child - in that case not to death, but otherwise similar in many ways to the case of Marchella Brett-Pierce. The author complains, "Katie Couric did a small piece on it for CBS News, but there was no national outcry along the lines of what Caylee Anthony is getting". But in the case I saw, Katie Couric didn't show up. And I doubt that she would have showed up even had the child died, even though the child was white. Very few child abuse cases, even those involving horrific circumstances, get media attention, and that largely extends to cases that result in death.

What the Caylee Anthony case has that the cases Blakeley describes is that it started with a missing child and, although you have to stretch the presumption of innocence pretty close to the breaking point, something of a murder mystery. A similar case that received significant media attention was that of D'Wan Sims, who disappeared in 1994. His mother, Dwanna Harris, told the police that her child had disappeared from a Michigan shopping mall. There was a search, and a review of videotape from mall entrances, with the video showing no sign of either mother or child. The case again received attention in 1999 when a tip about when the police investigated a tip about where the child's body might be found, and again in 2003 when a DNA comparison was conducted to determine if an unidentified child's body, found in Georgia, might be D'wan. It was not.

The decision was made not to prosecute the mother for such charges as child neglect, or for what appear to be some pretty atrocious lies to the police, so as not to risk foreclosing a prosecution to the fullest extent of the law if the child's body is ever located. But I have little doubt that the media will be all over the case if the mother is eventually charged with the child's murder.

When Blakeley complains that murders that involve no missing child, and no ambiguity about who committed a homicide, receive less attention than those involving both of those factors, the proper response is, "No kidding." Whether or not the story deserves to be front and center on the national news, the fact is that stories about missing children, lying parents and mysterious deaths will inevitably capture the public's attention in a manner in which an open-and-shut homicide case will not.

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