Paying More Attention to White Crime Victims

By Downs, Peter | American Journalism Review, December 1995 | Go to article overview

Paying More Attention to White Crime Victims


Downs, Peter, American Journalism Review


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 disappearance the 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 pervasie 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. …

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