May 07, 2009

News Coverage of Crime Victims

tgl

By Terry Glenn Lilley

Graduate Student, University of Delaware

Most of you have probably heard of Laci Peterson. She was pregnant with a baby boy when, on Christmas Eve of 2002, she was reported missing by her husband, Scott. Four months later, on April 14, 2003, Laci Peterson’s decapitated body was pulled from the San Francisco Bay. Four days after that, Scott Peterson was arrested for murdering his wife. He was later convicted and is currently on death row.

But how many of us have ever heard about Evelyn Hernandez? Evelyn Hernandez was a Salvadoran immigrant and single mother living in San Francisco. Seven months before Laci Peterson was reported missing, Evelyn Hernandez and her five year old son were reported missing. Like Laci Peterson, Evelyn Hernandez was pregnant and was due to deliver a baby boy in a week’s time. Three months after being reported missing, Ms. Hernandez’s decapitated body was pulled from the San Francisco Bay on July 24, 2002. This was nine months before Laci Peterson’s body would be recovered.

The circumstances of the two cases are remarkably similar. Yet one of the stories received considerable media attention while the other received very little. In the four months between Laci Peterson’s reported disappearance and husband Scott Peterson’s arrest on April 18, 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle published 32 stories about her disappearance and murder, four of which were on the front page. Meanwhile, the newspaper published a total of only four stories about Evelyn Hernandez and none of them made the front page.

The disparity in coverage wasn’t isolated to the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle. I conducted a LexisNexis Academic search in October 2008 for news items in U.S. Newspapers and Wires containing the name “Laci Peterson”, (results in Figure 1 below), and found 8,141 separate entries. On the other hand, a LexisNexis Academic search using the same parameters for “Evelyn Hernandez” produced only 57 results (0.7% of the total stories devoted to Laci Peterson).

What’s more, of the 57 stories mentioning Ms. Hernandez, 41 of them (72%) only mention her in relation to the Peterson case. One of the reasons for this is that during the Scott Peterson’s trial his defense team mentioned the Hernandez case to suggest that a serial killer might be targeting pregnant women in the area. tgl chart

So, why the disparity in news coverage? Some researchers suggest that a case’s novelty determines the level of attention it receives. The race, class, and gender of the victim also play a role. Victims who are white, middle to upper-class females receive more media and political attention than their lower-class counterparts of color. This disparity matters for a variety of reasons. For one thing, highly-publicized cases often receive more police attention and, later when the perpetrator is caught, more attention from prosecutors. These cases are also often used to rally support for legislation.

For instance, the 1992 murder of 18-year old Kimber Reynolds was used to help gain support for California’s “Three Strikes” law. The 1994 rape and murder of 7 year old Meghan Kanka from New Jersey was used to help create and pass that state’s sex offender registration and community notification law which has become known as “Megan’s Law”. You’re probably familiar with of “AMBER Alerts”, which are issued to inform communities and law enforcement of child abduction cases. AMBER Alerts are named for 9-year-old Texan Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped and murdered in 1996. Likewise, Laci Peterson’s murder in 2002 was used to pass “Laci and Connor’s Law” or “The Unborn Victims of Violence Act”. This act was passed by the United States Congress in 2004 and recognizes a child in utero that is injured or killed during the commission of federal crimes of violence as a legal victim.

In each of these cases, the victim was a white female. And, like the Peterson case, each had similarities to other crimes committed against women of color that received little to no media attention. Thus, while most of us have heard about Laci Peterson and Meghan Kanka, few of us know about Evelyn Hernandez, Tamika Huston, Dannarriah Finley, or Alexis Patterson, nonwhite victims of similar crimes whose names you might not know. Their murders didn’t make national headlines and no laws bear their names.

Some might argue that no matter which cases we rally around, protections for victims are being put in place so we should be satisfied either way. But if only a certain type of victim spurs action while other victims are ignored, already subordinated groups become more disenfranchised. Mourning white victims with news stories and then memorializing them with legislation can make minority victims seem even more nameless and forgotten.

Exactly what is it that makes Laci Peterson more newsworthy than Evelyn Hernandez? Why don’t we have ALEXIS alerts? Dannarriah’s law? What other ways do you think race, class, and gender shape our beliefs about crime?

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Comments

The disparity is the politicians and the media. They wait for the "right" one to come along. white, attractive, females sell. Ratings are very important and politicians will tell you anything for votes.

I'm sorry if I come off as blunt but that's the God awful truth.

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There is a significant disparity in the levels of income between white families and minority families. Elizabeth Smart's case was in the news constantly until she was found. I don't think that was due to her being "prettier" or "whiter" than other missing girls. Her parents spent a lot of money and had a lot of resources at their disposal. I believe this had a huge impact on the parents' ability to keep the story in the media.

Hi Terry,

Great article. I've worked as a newspaper reporter in the Bay Area for the past 6 years. I did some coverage of the Peterson trial, and I've given this particular subject a good amount of thought.

I think the following story will perfectly sum up the issue:

The news broke late one Thursday afternoon. We got a tiny, maybe 3-line press release, from the Redwood City Police Department about a female teacher who had been arrested for having sex with a student on campus. No photo, no details, just a name.

The Bay Area's news engine cranked into high gear. I called something like 15 or 20 people that night, and I could feel all the other reporters around me, also working at a feverish pace. I'd call the superintendent, and he'd tell me he just got off the phone with the Chronicle. I'd call the PTA president, and she'd tell me she just got off the phone with ABC 7.

We all wanted this story really, really badly.

Our stories ran pretty prominently in our respective news outlets, and at 8 a.m. Friday, there was a short line of reporters lined up outside the county's main office, all hoping to pull the police report in the case.

The first reporter went in, got the file and began tearing through it, writing down every juicy detail. This was potentially a very big story.

But then she slowed down, stopped and took out the teacher's photo.

"Shit," she says, turning to show us the photo. "She's ugly."

You could feel it ripple through the line. Our story had totally fallen apart. Because we instinctively knew no one cares about ugly female teachers having sex with students. They only care about the Mary Kay Letourneau's and Debra Lafave's of the world who have sex with their students. It's a boring story otherwise.

We covered it lightly, writing about the teacher's arraignment, conviction and sentence. But the story never made it out beyond the Bay Area, because it was inherently limited in its interest from the public.

I contend, however, that this phenomenon is not the media's fault. The public is simply not interested in stories that don't have a compelling hook. As reporters, we're trained to select which stories have a hook, and which don't.

While this might seem a little abstract, I feel we're in charge of protecting our culture's common stereotypes, and intensely focusing on stories that fall outside of those normal stereotypes.

For example, a teenage gangbanger shot and killed in a bad neighborhood gets just one article in the newspaper, because our culture accepts this as normal.

A straight-A student from a rich neighborhood who dies from a drug overdose at a high school sex party gets a series of articles, because the story falls outside of our stereotypes, and feeds into every parent's fear that their kids are inherently self-destructive.

The Peterson murder had several classic elements of a good drama -- a cheating, unapologetic husband, a jilted lover, a dead woman, the debate over the rights of an unborn baby. And, to top it all off, everyone involved was very photogenic.

Yes, it's true that pregnant women are killed every year by their husbands. But as a culture, we've accepted this as a fact, and need extraordinary circumstances to elevate the story to a national level.

The media often gets blamed for gatekeeping, but it really isn't our fault. I feel we're better tuned to which stories have traction with the widest section of our readership, and which have very little traction. The problem lies in our stereotypes, not in our reporters.

I thought that this story had alot of interesting information. I also think that it's really important to not have race and gender as problems. The newstations didn't put the other women in the new because they were lower-class people and they weren't white they didn't liver in suberbian neighborhoods. People just past that buy npt thinking about the victims family. They don't understand that it doesn't matter what color you are murder is murder. It's wrong to think that our country still has divides like that. But its something that we are going to have to over come. If a person is killed it should be about that person and what happened to them, not about where they were from and what color they are it's really sad to think about all those women that died and no one knows about them, just because they are different and they aren't exactly the most richest people in the world. I don't really understand why it's such a big deal I really can't put my fingers on it other than, we as a country needs some growing up to do and we need to do this fast.

This article, titled News Coverage of Crime Victims, is pretty interesting. A few years ago when the Peterson case was going on, I had heard about it more than others might have. The accused, Scott Peterson, graduated from the high school I went to, and everyone was pretty shocked that a middle class 'catholic' man would do such a thing. Concerning Evelyn Hernandez, I heard of no news what so ever. This might have been because she was from the Bay area, and I was all the way at the bottom of the state.. but what of these cases? The other female victims listed: Tamika Huston, Dannarriah Finley, or Alexis Patterson, I heard absolutely nothing of either. And so, after reading this article, questions are presented.. Why would the media choose to cover some stories, and not others? Do race and class really matter in murder cases? If so, what are the guidelines of such cases? Does one have to come from a relatively high earning family to receive the proper attention? Should they have gone to a prestigious school? Or, should every case be broad cast? It is unclear to me what the possible solution might be, and so it is much easier to say that the Police Department, and other related organizations should give equal attention to all victims. Despite color or class, or whatever other titles one might want to ascribe to a particular case, the fact of the matter is brutality inflicted upon another. It is my belief that our nation has not let go of racism, and assigning importance to a person based on class, but doe that mean we have to ignore people? What is the solution then, except for the persons who are in charge of these cases to give equal attention and devotion to the victims. Also, for us the viewers, to take every story the media produces with a grain of salt, and really think about every other case that might be similar to the one we are hearing.

I thought this story had great information and it was really interesting. I remember reading about Laci Peterson continuously for those months. However , not once did I hear about anyone else. I do think that race and gender do play a roll in publicity. I do however think this is wrong. I nation states that we have let go or racism but actions even among the media proves different. When will their ever be a solution? I don't believe you can rate the importance of someone's life or someone's tragic story based on their color, class, or whatever else we title those we live with daily. It is wrong. In America we have the right to free speech and the right to life. So why didn't the media cover each women's story with the same effort as they did Laci's? Both were murdered, both were loved, and both were human.

This article is very interesting and informative. I agree and also question why there are so many other cases like Laci's that go unnoticed and unattended to. Unfortunately, we live in the type of society where the pretty, white, seemingly perfect family gets the headlines instead of minority cases. It's terribly wrong and sad but race and class is a huge factor in what is being portrayed in the news. Hopefully one day we can overcome this because human is human and everyone's story should be heard no matter what color you are or how much money you make.

I found this article very informative, and quite disturbing. As predicted, I was not previously aware of the other cases involving minorities. It is absolutely horrific that something like race can make a murder case less important to the media or when creating legislation. I actually had no idea that things like race and class status played a role in the importance of a murder victim. This is definitely something our society needs to work towards, eliminating discrimination when it comes to crimes. I believe those other cases should be recognized and are just as useful in creating legislation as the murders of white high-class victims. However, I do not blame the news or the media. I believe they simply report what is believed to sell; and if there has been so many cases where minority crimes did not make the front page no matter how completely upsetting, it must be obvious to them that is not what the public wants to hear. On the other hand, maybe those reporters can make an effort in today’s society and get different results in the past. I know I don’t care what a person looked like; the details of a murder are always something I will pay attention to.
This article is obviously relatable to the class and gender. I find it incredibly ironic that statistically, minorities are more likely to commit a violent crime, and the media and its audiences are less likely to want to hear about a violent crime happening to a minority.

It is no surprise to me that cases like Evelyn Hernandez's do not gain the urgency and media attention of those like Laci Petersen's. Perhaps there is a deeper analysis that can be made but I belive that it is simply a case of stereotypes. Many people in our society are going to be more shocked by the murder of a middle class white woman than by that of a lower class immigrant. The suburbs are suppose to be the American safe haven and whenever one of the soccer dads snap and off the wife and kids it makes all of the others in middle class (which happens to be the majority in the U.S.) shake in their loafers.
Though I will state it bluntley, it is still a hard fact for me to face that when such a crime happens to a minority, let alone an immigrant like Evelyn, people may be disturbed but they are not suprised.
I guess thats just the way the cookie crumbles...

Though America is known as one of the most developed and put together countries we still have a continuing problem of racism, and discrimination. I feel like the reason the Lacy story got more attention than the Evelyn story because of the class that Lacy is in. When things happen in higher classes they're obviously going to get more media attention because of the connections they have rather than someone who is in a lower class.

To me situations like this just makes it seem like if you don't have money or power you don't have a voice and your story won't get told. It's not fair to Evelyn and her family that Evelyn's death wasn't taken as seriously as a white upper class woman's exact same death. Until such discrimination can be put away completely how can we all be equals?

I find it interesting that so many other races will become missing but when a white person is missing the media will be all over it. I think that the media is so racist, not to make anybody mad or anything, but you don’t really hear about other people talk a lot about other races but you will hear a lot if they are white.

It is true that families with wealth have the ability to keep the story alive, but the deeper question is why are these other women not written about more? I do believe that the media just wants to sell a story and they are aware of what sells and what does not. That being said, the media knows that middle to upper class white women sell more papers than that of an immigrant who was murdered.

Luke: I have no doubt that the media publishes stories that will sell, but how did the boundaries get set with such limitations in what society finds most important? I feel that media has played a role in the idea of what we (society) finds to be a good story. If you think about the nightly news, it has become hard to watch with all of the reports that are chosen to be aired about violence, theft and other acts of misconduct. And I do agree that the people in the stories which involve acts of violence, are those pertaining to certain stereotypes. If reporters would be less inclined to run such reports, would it help said stereotypes?
As you stated, you are trained to find the stories with the hook, and because news needs to be sold, that story is chosen for print. It is hard to put all the blame on society, because our want for the “top story” started somewhere. Media has allowed itself to follow such a narrow focus on what sells, which yes, is what society buys, but how are we to say it started with society.

Terry-
I am currently a student taking a sociology class and have read your article and find it very interesting. It is really something that you really wouldn't take the time to look at until it is brought up in a conversation or a blog such as yours. It is suprising what the media covers and what they won't cover and the real reason behind it. I do feel in this situation that the Evelyn Hernandez was descriminated because of her race which is absolutely ridiculous. What makes one person better than the other in the same situation they should be treated equally because the same thing happened to two different people. A life is a life. Do you think God would turn away someone because of their race? NO! Why should we. The way media and this world shape are thinking is outrageous if you really sit to think about it. Next time you watch t.v about meth being found in someones home pay attention to the details. The news usually covers homes that are smaller like a trailer that are filthy in the back yard or inside, lets just say lower or average class citizens, but we all know that the rich or higher class people are doing the same thing but you dont see the media covering people with money. Is it because they have money and power that they are affraid to tell the world because they are affraid they may be sued? Really just think about it!!

This blog is well crafted and addresses issues that are important in this society. The issue is important because if many people can know it, it can be changed in time perhaps. I enjoyed reading it and found it interesting and compelling.

I'm not from the US but it is good to know what is going on in the US, especially on this murder cases, racism and discrimination.

While it is true middle to upper class families have more resources at their disposal, it is a fact that I had never really thought about that low income victims do not get the same media coverage in the exact same circumstances and that race and social class are such strong factors. Even seeing news story after news story, this never occurred to me until I read your article. I am taking a sociology class this semester and while some of the concepts are contrary to my conservative viewpoints, some of it has opened my eyes to just how privileged I am and how strong of an influence social class is in our society. I liked the comparison of Laci Peterson and Evelyn Hernandez. It is amazing that for the 57 stories Evelyn had, Laci had over 8,000! There is definitely a bias in the media paying so much more attention to certain victims over others. I also liked your mentioning of the origins of Amber alerts and Meghan's law. More recently, here in San Diego, Chelsea's law was passed thanks to her family's perseverence making consequences for child sex offenders more harsh. A family of someone of low income would definitely not have the capability to accomplish such a task or get the attention that someone of a higher social ranking does.

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