Magazine article St. Louis Journalism Review

Media Create 'Hierarchy of Murder.'

Magazine article St. Louis Journalism Review

Media Create 'Hierarchy of Murder.'

Article excerpt

During an average year, approximately 200 murders are committed in the St. Louis metropolitan area. In 1997, the last year for which records are complete, 153 murders occurred. But, not every murder is covered by the media. This means a kind of "hierarchy of murder" is used in the media's daily reporting. This different treatment of murders has drawn criticism, especially from the African-American community.

"We are particularly aware of violent crimes that involve African Americans," says Alvin A. Reid, news editor of the St. Louis American. "But we don't cover every single murder that occurs - we just can't."

Many of the media view their coverage of murders as complete and fair. But, often the public feels the media overemphasize murders involving blacks and underemphasize victims, especially African-American victims. Some of the public also feels the media have a total disregard for the feelings of the victim's family, whose lives are torn apart by such crimes.

"The media have a much different treatment for black crimes than for white crimes," says James Buford, president of the St. Louis Urban League. "They show absolutely no selectivity when covering murders involving blacks - they just cover them all. But that's not the case when covering crimes with white persons. There is very low coverage of white crimes in the media."

Members of the media adamantly stand behind their reporting of murders. They deny racial prejudice plays any part in their decisions about how murders are covered.

"We just cover murders when there are murders - it's a news story and that is it. We make a point to not include anything racial in the stories unless that is part of the motive. Then we just report on the facts," says Jeff Alan, news director at KDNL (Channel 30).

"We are very sensitive to race issues. Gang-related murders are more common in minority communities. So it may seem like we highlight minority crimes more, but that's just the very nature of those stories."

The media have several factors to consider before deciding to report a murder.

"Every murder is a serious, serious news story that should never be taken lightly by a journalist. It should never be talked away as not newsworthy. However, we must look at several factors when deciding what to cover and what not to cover," says Alan.

The circumstance of the murder is the one aspect that all the media agree is the determining factor of coverage provided.

"The type of murder, the circumstances surrounding the murder, often determine how we cover it," says Steve Perron, a producer at KMOV (Channel 4).

The story must have some appeal or interest to the general audience in order to be considered for publication.

"Some people would have us cover every murder the same. But that isn't realistic," says Phil Gaitens, an assistant managing editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "We have to look at the circumstances of the murder and what is interesting to the public. Murders involving a public place or public figure captures more attention than that of a private individual."

While all murders are horrific, some are markedly different in nature. Murders that include multiple victims or children are perceived to be much more violent than those involving illegal activities or domestic disputes.

"We are less likely to cover a murder involving illegal activities, such as drug dealings, or a classic domestic situation where the members have had an on-going feud, than one involving children or multiple murders," says Perron.

Critics feel the news media take the is sue of public interest too far by sensationalizing stories, especially murders.

"Everything is over reported. The media sensationalizes murders without showing any responsibility to the families involved," said Buford. "They really need to stop and think about what they are doing to the families and the community; take responsibility. …

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