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The Attractive and the Anonymous: Inequity in Media Coverage for Victims of Violence
I was channel surfing late one night several years ago when the TV remote took me to a stand-up comedy show. A young, Black man, whose name escapes me, was riffing about pop culture.
Just as I was ready to go to the next channel, he shouted out (and I paraphrase): “Joran van der Sloot’s in the news again! You know, that guy who killed that White woman in Aruba . . . what’s her name?” he stammered. Then, magically, the name “Natalee Holloway!” cascaded from the largely African American audience.
“Yeah, Natalee Holloway!” he smiled, seemingly relieved to recall the name.
He continued (again paraphrasing): “The same guy is accused of killing that Peruvian woman . . . what’s her name? Help me out, audience.”
“Hmmm,” he smiled quizzically, “Hmmm!” to applause and laughter, as the audience, too, realized what had happened.
I mentioned that the comedian was Black to perhaps underscore what many people of color and poor economic circumstances know well—the unfairness of media news coverage and hype along racial lines of those victims seen as “attractive” versus the ones who remain anonymous.
The killings and disappearances of young women, are of course, no laughing matter as in that TV show. The victims in that particular case were two young, innocent women. One was somehow lured to her death in Peru, and the other remains missing and is presumed dead in Aruba.
Today we are again confronted by the disappearance and killing of a pretty, young woman whose case has fascinated broadcast and print outlets and U.S. viewers. Gabby Petito’s remains were found in mid-September in Utah after her cross-country trip with boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, who was a suspect and whose remains were recently found in the Florida woods.
Petito is among several women—all White—whose deaths and the media hype surrounding them can be described as, “The Missing White Woman Syndrome.” It is a term coined by the late PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill to describe how the public and media anguish over middle- and upper-income White women who disappear or are killed.
One example is the 2002 story of murdered Californian Laci Peterson and her unborn baby, which followed a media formula of centering an appealing demographic image for the masses. The case of Peterson, the former college student, cheerleader, and daughter of a dairy farmer, had us spellbound.
Other cases have furthered nativist agendas, such as the 2015 case of Kathryn Steinle, 32, who was accidentally killed by an undocumented immigrant, José Inez García Zárate (alias Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez), 56, in San Francisco. The fact that he had been deported five times seemed to infuriate the far right.
As that case unfolded, there was a telling juxtaposition of the photos of the victim and the supposed killer. She, a pretty, White American woman, and he a haggard-looking, dark-skinned man with a 5 o’clock shadow.
There is the constant stream of cynical hype, mostly on Fox News, about undocumented immigrants linked to killings of U.S. citizens like Steinle. But some hosts, such as the now-sidelined Lou Dobbs, revel in hysteria. The hosts peer into the camera and, with feigned concern, ask, “How many more Americans must immigrants kill?” (Studies indicate that immigrants, legal or otherwise, are less likely to engage in criminal behavior or wind up in prison than American citizens.)
In a xenophobic rage in 2016, the U.S. House approved two bills—“Kate’s Law” to maximize the penalties for criminal aliens who attempt to re-enter the country, and a second bill cutting funding to “sanctuary” cities that refuse to comply with federal immigration laws, according to The Hill. In the end, both bills stalled in the Senate.
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, who is of Canadian and Cuban refugee lineage and who migrated to Texas as a boy and thus is no stranger to immigration, took the lead on that “sanctuary” bill. Imagine police as immigration cops saying to suspects, “Ma’am, I am stopping and turning you over to the feds for a missing headlight and a work visa violation.”
After Steinle’s tragic killing, broadcasters and seemingly many Americans wanted to rework immigration laws and procedures. It is amazing how, in this country, one killing can roil the immigration law debate.
But the national media’s complicity in furthering xenophobia via the deaths of White women is sadly not unique to the U.S.
For example, in Mexico—my old country many generations removed—the killings of upper-income, light-skinned women monopolize media coverage to the exclusion of Indigenous, darker-skinned people—unless it’s in regard to a mass shooting. You see, racism and classism are not exclusively U.S. afflictions.
As a young journalist in the ’80s I asked, naïvely, why the deaths of, say, three hikers in Colorado generated so much nationwide concern. A kindly, grizzled editor cynically but realistically told me, “Three American hikers are worth more in news value than 500 ferry boat drownings in Africa or the Philippines.” It was perhaps his way of saying, “Welcome to journalism, young man. You might not like it at times, but as the aged gangster in The Godfather said, ‘This is the business we’ve chosen!’’’ And it was a critical lesson in how the demographics of the victims are supposed to dictate coverage.
During my 44-year career at eight American newspapers, I encountered similar sentiments from respected journalists. Senior editors would largely say the same thing: We print what is newsworthy, i.e. unusual or affecting many people.
Western people, that is.
If, for example, a war rages in the Middle East and 50 Kurds are killed, that’s worth five paragraphs of print. On the other hand, if, say, the son of an American senator were to be killed in that same area, that’s bigger news, from recovery of the body to the arrival of the remains in a flag-draped coffin to images of the family mourning at a national cemetery.
Another refrain I have often heard from editors: We print what piques the interest of a reader.
I get it. It’s about Eurocentric priorities. It’s about which strata of life the victim comes from. It’s about provenance, genes, and a Western connection.
So here, in the birthplace of modern media, maybe Americans should not deny that some lives matter more, and others less.
For too many victims whose deaths the media ignored, we will shrug and never be as outraged as we are for the disappearances and killings of the Natalee Holloways, Laci Petersons, Kathryn Steinles, and now the Gabby Petitos of our world.
For the families of the victims that received little to no media coverage, “Why,” they might wonder, “was their child considered a lesser being?”
In an NPR story in 2017, Zach Sommers, a crime sociologist at Northwestern University, discussed his conclusion of how White victims of homicides make newspaper headlines and TV news much more often than victims of color. And, when it comes to missing-person cases, White women are most likely to be newsworthy; their cases are followed more intensely than women and men of color; and White women are more likely to get coverage than men overall.
“By choosing to disproportionately highlight the experiences of Whites and women (on four web sites) they were implying that the cases of White women ‘matter more,’” Sommers concluded.
National news outlets will use the following as a crutch, perhaps to deflect criticism: That it is the unusualness of the cases of missing White women that justifies the inordinate coverage; the high numbers of missing women of color have led to a triage system; the race of the victim, good home, good neighborhood, and the unusualness of the crime dictate coverage.
The national journalists didn’t see much news value in these anonymous missing or murdered women, who are just several of thousands:
- Jawaher Hejji, 26, of Henderson, Nevada, last seen in December, whose remains were found in the desert 10 months after she was reported missing.
- Lauren Cho, 30, of New Jersey, missing since June in the Nevada desert and whose remains were recently found.
- Christina Nance, 29, of Alabama, discovered dead in mid-October in a police van after going missing for 12 days.
What can the national media do to correct this disparity in coverage?
First, they can create real diversity among assigning editors and top news managers. Second, we journalists can discard the post-colonialist mindset of comfortable, well-educated elites, who see the world in terms of “us and them.”
For more ideas on remedying unfair coverage, I spoke with Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, Ph.D., an ex-newspaperwoman and now a University of Texas-Austin journalism professor and oral historian; and Edward Walraven, Ph.D, a former newspaperman who is a retired Texas A&M journalism professor and senior lecturer. (I am a former newsroom co-worker of both.)
Rivas-Rodriguez tells me, “Solution #1—which applies today, as it did when I was a cub reporter at the Boston Globe, is to hire more folks from working class backgrounds, more people of color, and really apply the filter: ‘If this story about a poor woman of color was instead about a rich, White woman from (name the most expensive part of town), how would we cover it?’”
She continues, “There is a racial angle here, as well as a class angle … sometimes they’re directly tied together.”
Walraven points out, “The … situation suggests that media are so chasing ratings—‘eyes,’ ‘clicks,’ and profits—that diversity in missing-women stories will not reach a fair level. Why media are so married to the notion that ‘pretty, young White women in danger’ is the best formula, is a key part of the story. [It is] not the first time this question arises: Do media create or mirror these mind-sets?”
“For national television media,” he continues, “the availability and abundance of images seem to dictate the length of missing-woman coverage. A smiling affectionate Gabby Petito overpowers our image of her being strangled to death.”
Walraven speculates, “There are reasons the media fixate on such White women.” Those reasons “clash with classically trained journalists who are, I believe, aware of the coverage discrepancy, especially as newsrooms slowly become more diverse.”
“Race-based perceptions of the victims,” Walraven continues, “is central to whose story is considered the best to cover. As W.E.B. DuBois hinted, there are constant hierarchies, whether they are racial, economic, cultural, national, or religious that are at play in our society.”
Finally, Walraven suggests that remedying the “unfair White-missing-woman coverage would require editors and news directors choosing consistent fairness over the narcissistic search for clicks,” alluding to how some editors cravenly pursue web traffic.
The national media, long known for pointing the finger at others, are not blind to this disparity. They know what inequity—or disparity—looks like and still angle for viewership. That’s the business they are in.
And fairness, a bedrock of journalism?
What a quaint, 20th-century view. May it also rest in peace.
Guillermo Torres is a fellow of the Freedom Forum and the Institute for Journalism Education’s Minority Editing Program. He’s worked at the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News and the Santa Fe New Mexican, among other newspapers. He is among co-authors/editors of "A Legacy Greater Than Words."