How do news stories affect our perception of crimes against women from different racial backgrounds?
Michelle Kimberly Jackson, whom “You’re Dead — So What?” is dedicated to, is a homicide victim whose case has remained unsolved for approximately 30 years.
Though numerous studies have been conducted regarding perceived racial bias in newspaper reporting of violent crimes, few studies have focused on the intersections of race and gender in determining the extent and prominence of this coverage. In You’re Dead — So What? (Michigan State University Press, 2015), Cheryl L. Neely discusses the symbiotic relationship between media coverage and the response from law enforcement to victims of color, particularly when these victims are reported missing and presumed to be in danger by their loved ones.
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Several years ago while surfing through cable television channels for something of interest to watch, I happened upon the Nancy Grace program on CNN. Grace, a former Los Angeles prosecutor, is known for her brash and aggressive approach in examining crimes against society’s most vulnerable victims, namely women and children as victims of homicide. That night’s program centered on a young white wife and mother from North Carolina who had been brutally bludgeoned to death in her home as her young child slept in a nearby room. In her customary style, Grace was seething with anger and berating defense attorneys on the show’s panel of guest commentators who dared to proffer a possible defense for the victim’s husband, the suspected killer. At the time that the show aired, I was in the process of defending my dissertation proposal on the topic of the media’s coverage of female homicide victims by race.
Being drawn to programs such as the Nancy Grace show was not unusual for me since I have held a lifelong interest in issues related to violence against women. Needless to say, I was impressed with Nancy Grace’s passion and vigilance in addressing a problem that is all too often ignored or minimized within the United States and globally. Intimate partner violence remains the leading cause of death for women ages fifteen to forty-four. Nonetheless, women are less likely to be victims of violence than men. Yet while homicides in particular have declined overall, what has not changed is the fact that women are far more often murdered by men than men are by women. Essentially, even with declining homicide rates in the United States, the violent deaths of women continue to be fodder for increased ratings on television news programs; yet not all victims are viewed as rating bonanzas.
As I continued to tune in to Nancy Grace’s program, I became acutely aware that she almost exclusively covered violent deaths of white female victims. If the basis of the show’s coverage was to highlight shocking or appalling crimes against women and children, statistics would indicate that black women were far more likely to be victims of homicide. Reviewing FBI data from 1997, black women were almost four times more likely than white women to be homicide victims:
Despite the fact that the population of black females in the United States in 2011 was 22 million compared to 100 million white females, they are more at risk for lethal violence. They are also less likely to be informed of this unsettling reality by the media.
So, what is the probable impact of crimes against black women being underrepresented in the media when the reality is that they are more likely to be victims of homicide than their white counterparts? Unsurprisingly, it is a false sense of security in the face of very real and grave danger. Some black and Latina women living in New York City interviewed by researchers regarding the effects of media and images of crime victims indicated that they had less fear of crime because they falsely believed white women to be the more common victims of homicides based on the extensive and continuous media coverage of white female victims. Further, they viewed white women as “ideal” victims who were submissive, weaker than ethnic women, and unable to protect themselves from crime. In essence, the media contributed to the perpetuation of viewing white women as primary victims, particularly in homicides perpetrated by strangers.
Most striking is that these women of color also believed that for them to be recognized as victims worthy of media coverage, it had to be demonstrated that they were better than the perceived stereotypes of their racial group—in other words, that they were good mothers, were students or in college, were religious, and so forth. It is clear to many African American women that they are at the bottom of the list when it comes to news coverage—even regarding homicides. As an African American woman myself, it does not escape my attention when news outlets eagerly provide extensive coverage of missing and/or murdered white women, while simultaneously black females are also disappearing or being murdered and have received little to no attention from the media.
Recent statistics on crime trends indicate that violent crime in the United States has been decreasing since 2005. In that year, there were 16,740 homicides in the United States. By 2011, there were 14,612 murders, reflecting a decline of 12.7 percent. However, in large urban areas, African Americans have continued to be victims of homicide at an alarming rate. In Detroit, in the year 2012 alone there were at least 400 homicides, while in Chicago there were 500 murders in the same year (most of which came from the largely black neighborhood of Englewood). It stands to reason that regardless of declining national crime trends, the reality for minorities living in low socioeconomic communities is that violent death is an everyday occurrence whether the news outlets substantiate this or not. In fact, while researching literature on the topic of media coverage of crime and the general public’s view of crime victims, I was taken aback at the question posed in the abstract of one such article: “Why has the public persisted in believing that violent crime is a widespread national problem in the U.S. despite declining trends in crime and the fact that crime is concentrated in urban locations?” The implication of this question was not lost on me either as an African American or as a sociologist. It is clear that the “public” the author was referring to was middle class and white, since this group is less likely to live in an urban community, where occurrences of violent crime tend to outpace those on a national level. Therefore, the author suggests that this “public” should be less concerned about violent crime when it is not part of their community and thus is not their problem. This attitude forms the crux of this book, specifically that victimization of white females is seen by a biased media and public as representative of a threat to all women. But if violence happens to black females in urban communities, most white females need not fear for their own personal safety.
Given that violent crime is on the increase in urban and poor neighborhoods, it is both interesting and demoralizing that these statistical facts tend to be ignored by the mainstream media time and time again when it comes to crime victims of color. So common was the extensive media coverage of white female victims that a term was dubbed to label the phenomenon—“Missing White Girl Syndrome”—and numerous blogs and Internet websites have discussed the issue of disproportionate media coverage for these particular victims. In contrast, despite the fact that African American females are 2.4 times more likely than white females to be victims of homicide, their deaths are not frequently reported in the press. In some cases, when the murder of inner-city women of color does get media attention, many reporters provide negative background details about the victim, implying that she was somehow culpable, particularly if there was a history of substance abuse, prostitution, or sexual promiscuity. One can assume that even the suggestion of sexually liberal behavior can be enough to negatively shape the image of the victim in the public’s eye, especially if she is a minority.
This pattern was evident in the reporting of a recent homicide of two black women in the city of Hamtramck, Michigan, an urban and ethnically diverse community that borders Detroit. On February 28, 2012, twenty-two-year-old Ashley Conaway and her best friend, eighteen-year-old Abreeya Brown, were kidnapped by gunpoint from Brown’s stepfather’s home in Hamtramck. Approximately one month later, on March 25, 2012, Ashley and Abreeya were found in a shallow grave after being bound, gagged, and shot at close range in the back of the head.
The suspected motive behind the killings was that after spending the evening together at a strip club on February 8, 2012 (a detail provided by the Fox 2 Detroit news program), Conaway was shot at by one of the alleged perpetrators after she rebuffed his attempts to have a romantic relationship with her, and then subsequently refused to accept a proposed bribe of $5,000 from the assailant in lieu of testifying against him for the assault. The news reporter may not have conveyed the fact that the two young women spent an evening at a strip club with their suspected killers to intentionally discredit the victims or somehow imply that their moral character was questionable. However, this is often the inevitable impact of such a disclosure. The press initially reported that both victims were college students and had no prior criminal records, yet some might question their moral aptitude when positive elements of their background are contrasted with evenings out with ex-cons at “gentlemen’s” clubs. Details such as these lead to the questioning of the woman’s character and make it difficult for the public to sympathize with the victim; it might lead viewers to believe that she does not deserve the coverage.
Numerous scholars have written about the impact of the media on how society views various issues. For the most part, the way journalists “frame” the stories they report shapes the media’s influence, thereby setting the context of the story for the reader or viewer. Again, the description of a victim and the facts of the case can elicit empathy and moral outrage or an apathetic dismissal by the reader or viewer that the victim “put herself in that position,” especially when there was a relationship between the female victim and the male perpetrator and there is a history of violence between them. For example, the story might mention family members’ concerns about the victim’s relationship with the abuser, their efforts to protect her from the abuse, and the victim’s refusal to terminate the relationship. On July 2, 2012, thirty-three-year-old Shawanda Spratling, of Detroit, was fatally beaten and shot by her ex-boyfriend, thirty-five-year-old Larry Crawford, whom she began (according to the news article) secretly dating after he was recently released from prison. The story referenced her father’s objection to the relationship and his warnings to his daughter to end the relationship. “It must’ve been 10 years ago—I chased him out of this house myself!” her grief-stricken father told the press. One must wonder how many readers would be inclined to have less sympathy for the victim under such circumstances—her father tried in vain to protect her, she defied his advice and secretly continued the relationship, and the killer had a past violent and threatening history with the victim.
On the other hand, the power of the media also lies in their vital role in naming a social problem and acting as a catalyst in the construction of viable solutions. In short, the media’s “framing” of a social problem (in this case, the murder of black and white women) determines society’s response. If the victim is portrayed as undeserving of the violence perpetrated against her, and is attractive, relatable, and likable, the public is more inclined to empathize with the victim and be moved to action on her behalf. Law enforcement is called upon to solve the homicide. Without public sympathy for victims of domestic violence, it is unlikely that legislation will be enacted to address this issue as a social problem. Here, I contrast six cases of homicides of black and white women to illustrate the apparent bias in the media’s determination of which victims receive prominent coverage and, consequently, which cases police determine to investigate vigorously.
The race of the victim determines whether a murder receives prominent coverage by newspapers or other media outlets. The media are quick to dismiss this assertion, and instead claim that stories that get attention are those that are unusual, are rare, or provoke outrage from the general public. When one observes the crime stories that fit these criteria, however, the focus tends to be on those with white victims. To illustrate, I am reminded of a case that occurred in Michigan in 2012. On January 25, 2012, fifty-six-year-old Jane Bashara was found strangled in the backseat of her car in an alley on the east side of Detroit. The white and upper-middle-class Grosse Pointe mother of two and successful businesswoman was reported missing by her husband, Bob Bashara, after she failed to return home from work. Joseph Gentz, a handyman who worked for the Bashara family, readily confessed to the murder shortly after Jane’s body was found. He then implicated Bob Bashara in the homicide as the person who paid him to strangle Jane in their Grosse Pointe home, and instructed Gentz to leave the body in her Mercedes SUV in Detroit to give the appearance that the victim was killed as a result of an attempted robbery or carjacking. Prosecutors have charged Bob Bashara with first-degree murder in the killing of his wife, and he is facing additional charges of attempting to hire a hit man to kill Joseph Gentz, among other acts of witness tampering.
During the murder investigation into Jane’s death, there were a number of lewd details that emerged regarding the background of Bob Bashara—from his illicit love affairs with a mistress and other women, to his secret sex dungeon in the basement of one of his commercial property buildings, as well as his belonging to a sadomasochistic website.
However, even before these details were uncovered and disclosed to the public, the extent of local and national media coverage in this case eclipsed any other homicide that occurred in Detroit or its surrounding suburbs for the entire year. The murder of Jane Bashara was featured on ABC Nightly News, the Huffington Post, and Good Morning America. On NBC’s Dateline evening news program, the story about the Bashara homicide was titled “Secrets in the Suburbs,” and the narrator referenced the idyllic and prosperous community of Grosse Pointe several times during the news clip.
In contrast, there were 387 homicides in Detroit in 2012, with the majority of the victims being male. Among the victims, forty-three were female (four of these victims were white females), and only a few of these victims received at least one article in the local newspapers about their deaths. The Wayne County medical examiner’s office for the city of Detroit noted that there were six homicides of black females during the month of January 2012 (in addition to the Jane Bashara homicide), and of those, I found that only three victims received press coverage (albeit it local) of their murders. Twenty-one-year-old Claudia Benson, a nursing student, was robbed of her purse and gunned down after leaving a local bar and grill with friends. What seemed to bring the story to the attention of the press was that at the arraignment of the accused shooter, thirty-five-year-old Jacob Welcome Wells, the defendant’s family attempted to physically assault Benson’s family as they left the courthouse.
In another case, twelve-year-old Kade’jah Davis was shot multiple times through the door of her home when the accused assailant, nineteen-year-old Joshua Brown, argued with the victim’s mother over a missing or stolen cell phone. When Kade’jah’s mother closed the door on the defendant, he fired shots into the home, and Kade’jah Davis was struck several times while doing homework in her living room. Again, another shocking detail of the case that seemed to make the story “newsworthy” was that the defendant’s thirty-five-year-old mother actually drove him to and from the murder scene!
The third black female victim who was murdered in the month of January and received coverage from the local press was twenty-year-old Tailar Davis, who was shot execution style in the back of the head along with her boyfriend while they sat in the front seat of a vehicle. It was reported in the press that the victim was a shy nursing student who, while in high school, turned down the opportunity to speak at her high school graduation as valedictorian because she was too afraid to speak in front of an audience. To date, the Tailar Davis murder case remains unsolved; the lone article on this case focused on the mothers of the two victims seeking the public’s help in finding the killer.
Certainly, Jane Bashara is not the first woman to die at the hands of her husband, and beyond her education and socioeconomic class, she is yet another unfortunate victim of domestic homicide. Both Tailar Davis and Claudia Benson were young, attractive, and motivated women pursuing careers in nursing, and Kade’jah Davis was not yet a teen who had a 4.0 GPA, loved school, and was adored by her friends, teachers, and especially her family. Yet none of these victims received continuous primetime coverage by the media as in the Bashara case. Most heartbreaking was a statement made by Kade’jah’s grieving ten-year old male cousin to reporters. “She would always play with me. She always got me,” he said. “She always understood me.”
When news outlets decide to give priority to homicide stories, there are a number of factors that determine whether the story receives prominent coverage—for example, homicides with multiple victims, black suspects, female suspects, white victims, and female victims (who were most often white). However, there appears to be no explication for the differences in coverage of female homicides between racial groups. Criminal justice professor and researcher Derek J. Paulsen found that female victims murdered by male assailants had longer articles (greater word count) compared to male victim/male assailant homicides since female homicides were viewed as statistical anomalies (yet again, he failed to investigate whether this prominence is less pronounced when the victim is a black female).
The media acknowledge that the public tends to show a keen interest in homicides when the victim is female (just look how often true crime documentaries feature female victims compared to males), and within these news articles or televised coverage, there tends to be more information about the victim’s background and her value to her family and/or community; even the details of the homicide seems to border on the salacious and sensational. Again, the rarity of certain specific types of victims is also an indication of which homicides receive “breaking news” coverage by the media—murders involving Asian or Asian American victims, females, and multiple-victim homicides—and thus these stories are not only more apt to be more lengthy, but they are more often located in the front section or conspicuous sections of the newspaper. Here the story catches the reader’s attention, and the impact of this awareness is immediate. Moving the public either to action or anger, it is the hope of victims’ families that humanizing their loved ones and showcasing details of the killing may generate additional tips to solve the crime and/or increase pressure on law enforcement to bring the perpetrator(s) to justice. In contrast, crime briefs or shorter crime columns are most likely to feature homicides considered to be “statistically common,” such as blacks and Hispanics as victims, male victim homicides, and murders with a single victim. Equally troubling is that the prevalence of racial stereotypes of blacks as criminals (as opposed to being victims) results in the public being not only less sympathetic to black homicide victims but more likely indifferent as well.