Paying More Attention to White Crime Victims
By Peter Downs
Peter Downs is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.
Eddie Burton faced the cameras to send out a plea for information on the abduction and murder of young LaChrisha "C.J." Jones. To his right, C.J.'s mother placed a black and yellow ribbon on the site where the body of the 17-year-old African American was found 10 months before. Once the cameras stopped rolling, Burton, a spokesman for Families Advocating Safe Streets (FASS), an organization of clergy, concerned citizens and African American support groups, gave the assembled press corps a piece of his mind. He angrily contrasted the lack of attention from the St. Louis media at the time of Jones' murder with the week of headlines that followed the abduction and murder of a 22-year-old white woman eight months later.
"Black victims don't get the attention," Burton vented, so their families "feel the press and the police don't care." The press conference's organizer, Jeanette Culpepper, who founded FASS after her own son was murdered, agreed. "When a black kills a white, all hell breaks loose," she said. "But when it's black on black, it's all right."
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's index bears out Burton's and Culpepper's claims. In the three weeks following the disappearance of 9-year-old Kimbre Young in 1993, for example, the newspaper ran only two stories on the African American girl's case. Five months later Cassidy Senter, a 10-year-old Caucasian girl, was the second to disappear from a suburban neighborhood. In the four weeks following her disappearancethe newspaper ran more than 23 stories about her.
It appears there has been little research on the issue of racial imbalances in reporting on crime victims. But the data that are available indicate a real disparity that is pervasive in many American cities.
A 1994 Chicago study on violence in television news and "reality" programming (shows such as "COPS" and "Rescue 911") by Robert Entman, then an associate professor of communications at Northwestern University, found that, on average, stories about white victims of violent crimes lasted 74 percent longer than stories about black victims. The total time given to white victims was 2.8 times more than the total time devoted to both black and Hispanic victims.
"In comparable cases, you will find a greater number of column inches or seconds on TV for white victims than for black victims anywhere in the Midwest," says Sonia R. Jarvis, professor of communications at Washington, D.C.'s George Washington University.
Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a Harvard University psychiatrist, says anti-black bias in reporting on murder victims "isn't arguable." No newspaper he's seen "isn't guilty of giving more attention and sympathy to white murder victims than to black murder victims," he says, "giving even more sympathy to the white victim if the perpetrator is black."
Tim Larson, news director at KSDK-TV in St. Louis, admits that the critics are right. But he says the media are caught in a double bind. If a news organization emphasizes reports on black victims, he says, "we get criticized for only covering crimes in the black community."
Not so, counters Jarvis. "We're not suggesting that the media report more crime or that whites get less coverage," she says. "We're suggesting that black deaths also get treated [with a] sense of loss."
Many argue that prejudice and stereotyping inevitably play a role in the media's coverage of black crime. Marsha Houston, professor of communications at Tulane University, says the "killing of a white person is always treated as a significant loss," while the killing of a black person is usually dismissed with an "assumption that that person was involved in the drug scene" and is not worth reporting.
Jarvis adds that this assumption holds true across the country. The only exception she's seen was in the East Coast media, she says, when it reported the death of Len Bias, who had just been drafted by the Boston Celtics. In general, she says, the news media depict African Americans as "throwaway people who can be ignored."
Jim Amoss, editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, argues that any such bias is probably inadvertent. "Most metropolitan dailies are essentially white-run organizations," he says, "and still, in 1995, white readers and editors gravitate to whites as their own kind. Their hearts go out more to white crime victims than to black victims."
Arthur Silverblatt, professor of communications at St. Louis' Webster University, says that economics, not prejudice, are at the heart of decisions to play up homicide stories with white victims. He says that such decisions derive from competition for viewers with money. "As the white community is the community with more income," he says, "they are the people whose viewership matters more."
Mike Ward, news director at WMAQ Channel 5 in Chicago, says that with newsrooms becoming increasingly diversified, there is a good chance that coverage of crimes against blacks is improving, even though the sheer number of black homicide victims in urban areas complicates efforts to provide in-depth analysis. "There is no way," he says, "that we or anyone else can cover the totality of crime in the city and suburbs of Chicago, where there are over 900 murders a year."
Ward says that in his newsroom, staffers try to concentrate on the objective facts of the story. "Whether reporting on a drive-by shooting or whatever," he says, "we look at what is the crime rate, is it going up or down, and are people forming [neighborhood crime watch] units or do they already have them?"
But Jarvis says that providing context for the news involves more than simply reporting whether or not the crime rate is up or down. The problem, she says, is that "we're not seeing the issue framed in a way that would encourage a positive public policy response... If the kinds of killings we see going on daily in urban centers were instead being committed by foreign terrorists, would the American people stand for it?" ###