There are few in this city who heard the news last weekend that Brianna Denison’s body had been found in a field at the corner of Double R Boulevard and Sandhill Road who weren’t saddened. Lots of people worked very hard and virtually every citizen of this city, and even cities and countries beyond, sent out thoughts and hopes and prayers that the vivacious 19-year-old would be brought home safely.
But it wasn’t to be. Our condolences go out to Denison’s family and friends.
And now, in the quiet time between the finding of the body and the finding of the killer, we look for lessons, things we can learn about living from life’s darkest moments.
Interpretation of events is one of the things our business does, to examine what was done well and what was done poorly. There are lessons to be learned in this tragedy. One, in particular, stands out, and it speaks to the very nature of what “news” is and what breeds fear in our society.
A kidnapping and murder by a stranger is an extremely rare event. It is this rarity that makes a story like Brianna Denison’s “news.” Murders happen every day in the United States—about six a day. Abductions happen every day in the United States. Those murders and abductions have several things in common. Most never make it off the local front page to the national eye. Most are solved very quickly. And the vast, vast majority of these crimes are committed by a person with whom the victim is familiar.
Denison’s murder has many attributes in common with the school shootings that have been in the news for so long. We, the media consumers, are convinced because we’ve seen newscast after newscast talking about school shootings that school shootings have become an almost commonplace event, and we fear to send our children to school, terrified that which “can’t happen here” will happen here.
And yet children are murdered and attacked in this country every day, at home. And in the vast, vast majority of cases, it’s by someone they know and probably love—like a parent. And here’s the rule to make the point: School is the safest place in the world for a child to be. It’s the exact opposite of what most media consumers would probably say. The reason for this is that the other types of violence against children are so common, they don’t make front-page headlines.
To repeat, so there are no misunderstandings: The rarity of some crimes makes them make headlines, but the commonality of other crimes means they don’t make headlines. The headlines make us believe the rare crime is common because of its ubiquity on the evening news.
The truth of the matter is that Brianna Denison’s murder garners banner headlines in newspapers and on wire services around the globe because it is an extremely rare occurrence. Already, because of its rarity, the story has virally sent false and misleading information to media consumers around the world, such as, for example, that there is a serial killer loose in Reno. At the least, it’s premature to make that statement. We hope that it will never be true.
We, in this community, can only trust that this killer will soon be brought to justice. Pay attention to what’s going on around you at every moment. Assist the police if given an opportunity. But people must also be aware that not every stranger is a murderer, and not every serious crime signals an epidemic of them.