Back to business as usual

Journalism is about exceptions. We don’t normally report all the banks that haven’t been robbed. We rarely report on the lands that have not been burned by wildfires. And we don’t usually report on domestic abuse.

For instance, twice as many children die at home every week as died at Columbine High School. But Columbine was out of the ordinary, and thus newsworthy. Home abuse is frequent to the point of being routine, and the routine is anathema in journalism.

Chaz Higgs is now convicted of the murder of former state controller Kathy Augustine, and Nevada’s television stations and newspapers can stand down from this unusually minute scrutiny of a domestic abuse murder—not that many of them identified it as such. They thoroughly buried that aspect of the case.

While the Chaz Higgs trial was unfolding in Reno, another case in Fernley, where Michael Newcastle was arrested on charges of killing his wife, Shelby Joanette, was given far less attention. After all, such cases happen all the time. Only rarely is a state controller killed. When Newcastle goes to trial, what are the odds that there will be the kind of heavy daily coverage the Higgs trial received?

What is particularly unfortunate about the Augustine case is that there was a feature of the trial that had wider application than just the case at hand. That was the demonizing of the victim, to the point that a prosecutor had to tell the jury in closing argument, “You’ve heard Kathy Augustine wasn’t a nice person, but the penalty for [being a] bitch isn’t death. You don’t get to kill her because you don’t like her. Mr. Higgs killed his wife with a poison, and he should be found guilty.”

That would have been something that deserved more than routine news coverage because it applies to many other victims who are not prominent or affluent or white, but there was little if any such coverage to try to draw larger lessons from this case. Instead, there was only prominence to rationalize the heavy coverage.

So this case will be remembered not as a domestic violence case at all—how often did we hear reporters even make that connection during the trial?—but as a case of a well-known state elected official who was killed by exotic means.

We will go back to covering the Columbines like a blanket because those are the exceptions—children rarely die in school, but they frequently die at home. And until another spouse kills another prominent spouse, we’ll also go back to downplaying the routine spousal murders. Don’t stop the presses.