Victims who count. Victims who don’t.
How does journalism decide which murders to cover?
The door to the apartment had been left ajar and after some racket was heard from inside, someone called the police. A cat made the noise, but the animal was not the first thing that caught the officer’s attention. When the door was pushed open the rest of the way, a body came into view. It was Peggy Davis, a 29-year-old who had been a keno runner at Reno’s Overland Hotel and then worked at the Lucky Lady Club.
The Nevada State Journal (one of the progenitors to the Reno Gazette- Journal) gave the murder 12 sentences on page 2, below the fold.
Three days later, on Feb. 24, 1976, another body was found, this one in a garage near Ninth and Record streets, just off campus. It was 19-year-old Michelle Mitchell, a University of Nevada, Reno nursing student.
The Journal gave it two photos and two long stories, dominating the front page above the fold, and the package jumped inside.
Why the difference?
It was a question that came to the fore during the Brianna Denison search, when many Renoites were heard to offer some variation of, “It wouldn’t be getting this kind of attention if she were a single black mother.”
The events of the Denison case before her body was found were in so many ways heartening. A city that seldom acts like a community suddenly was caught up in common cause. Residents joined search parties, put signs in front of their homes and flyers in their business windows, gave money for DNA testing and rewards. If the heart of the community had been a factor in the outcome, Denison would have been found alive.
But where had all that involvement been in August, when 64-year-old University of Nevada, Reno instructor Judy Calder vanished and was not found for 10 days? Both reporters and residents treated the Calder case routinely. Calder has no special pages—as there are for Denison—on websites for the city of Reno, the Reno Police Department or at the Reno Gazette-Journal. The municipal bus line didn’t offer free transportation to Calder’s memorial service as it did for Denison’s. Calder didn’t make the Nancy Grace Show as Denison did. Run Google searches, and they produce 1,670 hits for “Judy Calder,” 293,000 for “Brianna Denison.”
Knowing the territory
Many factors go into the decision to give heavy coverage to some murders and all but ignore others. In the Denison case, most people would probably cite the facts that the victim was young and beautiful, and those were surely factors. But in many cases, there are also subtler considerations.
Journalists and police often have an unhealthy, codependent relationship. The police promote certain crimes for reasons of their own, and journalists take cues from the police.
One of the better documented cases of police stage-managing media coverage of crimes was in 1976 when the New York newspapers reported a sudden wave of robberies of senior citizens. The attention prompted expansion of a law enforcement senior crime task force, attacks on the juvenile justice system, and new penalties enacted by the legislature, all because of news coverage during a period when crimes against the elderly actually declined. Criminologist Jerome Miller later noted that “no objective evidence backed up the premise of this reporting.” Clearly the journalists had never bothered to consult whatever statistical collection was going on, nor did they know that a federal agency had offered grants to localities wanting to set up senior citizen police task forces.
That’s how a lot of alleged “trends” come about. David Krajicek, a recovering crime journalist for the New York Daily News and Council Bluffs Daily Nonpariel, has written, “Because of the interest by journalists, the police pluck these cases from the vast pile and feed them to the media, which present the stories in the form of a crime wave. Often, the same types of crimes had been occurring in happy obscurity all along.”
With the decline of beat reporting, journalists are more than ever at the mercy of police. More and more, reporters are expected to be general assignment reporters, who don’t know the nuances of a beat. It is common for law enforcement stories to be done without any police officers involved at all, just a police publicist and the sheriff or police chief. In Reno, KRNV’s Victoria Campbell and the RG-J’s Jaclyn O’Malley are about the only reporters left who have in-depth knowledge of the operation of the “cop shops.”
In his book Scooped!, Krajicek describes some of the crimes likely to be newsworthy: Crimes witnessed by journalists themselves, crimes by politicians, sports figures and other celebrities, crimes involving the rich or famous (not the poor or the ethnic), crimes against elite professionals (not secretaries or cooks), crimes in “broad daylight,” at country clubs or in silk stocking zip codes (not at crack houses or prostitution venues).
Sometimes murders get attention because they involve particularly brutal crimes or because there are factors that lend themselves to coverage, such as good art. The murder of JonBenét Ramsey would probably have remained a local crime if it hadn’t been for all that footage of child beauty pageants.
Exotic murders—featuring use of ice picks, acid and such weapons—always get good coverage. (Note that few of these criteria have much to do with responsibly informing the public.)
Then there are themes. Loyola University crime and media specialist Linda Heath says that sometimes police or journalists put similar crimes into a group template. Such a process may now be underway with the murders of University of North Carolina student body president Eve Marie Carson and Auburn University first-year student Lauren Burk, which, when linked to the Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech shootings, may suggest rising violence on campuses.
“An older university professor woman disappearing … doesn’t fit into a pattern as nicely,” Heath said. “And so if there had been a whole series of older women disappearing around the country, then I think that [the Calder case] might get more attention because it would appear to be something—not just an individual case but rather of a broader significance or part of a broader trend.”
Krajicek said that when journalists link similar crimes because they happen close together in time, such as Jonesboro/Pearl-type school shootings or a couple of child abductions, reporters then take an additional leap beyond what the evidence shows and call these multiple incidents a trend. This happened in the Michelle Mitchell/Peggy Davis case. Davis’ murder was well on its way to obscurity when Reno journalists linked those two cases with a third non-fatal assault of a woman, sending a tremor of fear through the valley and especially on campus.
“We present these cases as being a trend, when in fact they’re a cluster,” Krajicek said. “It’s like looking at the obit page in a Las Vegas paper on a particular day and seeing that every single obit is about somebody who died of cancer, and you draw the conclusion that there’s a terrible, horrible outbreak of cancer. That’s a cluster, you know, it’s kind of a coincidence. And the media helps build the cluster because once a college shooting is on the radar screen, any college shooting anywhere, any campus violence anywhere becomes national news. Often the statistics will show, down the line, that there’s no more violence than there’s ever been. … Now, without question, the Virginia Tech shooting took campus violence to a new level—but, my God, we had the Texas tower shooting in the 1960s. … [W]e do a connect-the-dots on them, whether they should have dots connected or not.”[page]
Screening the unworthy
Just as there are factors that favor some crimes, there are also factors that argue against coverage of other crimes, or so they are regarded by journalists, and they tell us as much about journalism as about the victims. There is what Heath calls “blaming the victim,” which can also involve blaming the victim’s family. If a victim is seen by journalists as reckless, promiscuous, disreputable or whatever, coverage is less likely. In News Reporting and Writing by Melvin Mencher, a standard journalism textbook, among a list of items a reporter should seek out about a crime victim, along with such items as “time, date, place of death” is “Any police record for victim; any connection with criminal activity.”
Other ways of blaming the victim can be raising questions about judgment—What was she doing jogging in the park at night?—and even things not really within the control of the victim, such as place of residence. When the location of a victim is, say, the low-income neighborhoods off Oddie Boulevard, newsrooms find it easy to cover the story for a couple of days and then drop it—unless, of course, other, racier elements are present, such as a drive-by shooting. Class distinctions are very much a part of news judgment.
After Peggy Davis’ murder, a Reno police officer referred to her as a “bar girl"—provoking an angry reaction from a Davis friend, who accused the officer of making her sound like a hooker. The officer responded that he simply meant that she had been a cocktail waitress—which begged the question of why he hadn’t used that term in the first place.
During the night of Sept. 23/24, 1990, a 7-year-old girl named Monica DaSilva vanished from her parents’ home in Reno. A few months later, on June 10, 1991, an 11-year-old girl, Jaycee Lee Dugard, was abducted while walking to her bus stop in Lake Tahoe. The Reno parents were low-income working people. The Tahoe family was relatively affluent.
Reno police immediately suspected Monica DaSilva’s parents, an attitude that communicated itself to reporters, and there was a rumor that police officials warned off a national television show planning to do a segment seeking help on the case. Later, the Dugard family received much more favorable news coverage. “Often it has to do with the sex, age and social status of the victim,” said Krajicek. (Two non-family suspects were later identified in the DaSilva case, and one of them has also been mentioned in connection with the Dugard case.)
Ed Pearce, one of the most-experienced television reporters in Nevada, has seen these cases from several perspectives—as a reporter who covers them, as a news director who decides the emphasis to place on them, and as a board member of Secret Witness, the community group that offers rewards for information on crimes. During the Denison case, Secret Witness received large contributions to be used as rewards in that specific case, which would have put the organization in the position of breaking from its normal formulas of amounts for types of crimes, of treating one murder victim as more valuable than others. Pearce saw the analogy with his profession and was troubled by it.
“I have to worry as reward chairman for Secret Witness about maintaining equity on rewards because I think we shouldn’t have second-class victims. But as a newsperson, you know"—he exhaled slowly, as though trying to come up with the right words—"you know, some of what we do is generated by public interest. As you know, there’s lots of different definitions of news, but one that will never fail you is the watercooler question. ‘What are people talking about around the watercooler at the office the next day?’ And you want to make sure that you’re sending your audience into that conversation well-informed and hopefully with stuff that other people don’t have.”
He adds on the Denison case, “I don’t think we’ve driven this as much as—I mean, I think a lot of it’s just driven by the public.”
Who reflects whom?
The watercooler scenario is also sometimes described in a different way—as the drug dealer’s defense: “We’re giving the public what it wants.” Pearce generally believes that what ends up on the air reflects the public’s interest. Krajicek says it’s not that one-way, from the public to the journalists, or vice versa, and that there’s a third player, law enforcement, in the mix:
“I can say that there’s a codependency that’s developed between the public, the media and law enforcement. You say that the journalists take their cues from law enforcement, but I’m not sure that it’s not the other way around just as much. I think the media chooses to focus on a particular case, and that forces the criminal justice system to use more of its resources on that case.”
In an age when the means of communication is technologically advanced, the way journalists look at some types of stories has not changed at all. As Krajicek said, “Journalists in our profession, we’re kind of like woolly mammoths. You know, we have this image of what news should be, and I guess it’s conscious for some of us and subconscious for others, but somehow we believe that the death of a 22-year-old co-ed is somehow more interesting and more engaging than the death of a 60-something college professor.”
Reno News & Review reporter Kat Kerlin says she believes that some murder cases, of low income people or mentally unbalanced victims, do not resonate with the public or journalists as strongly as someone who could be themselves.
“When something happens to someone who’s from a nice family, going to school, doing all the things that you think you’re supposed to do in order to have a good life, and something happens to them, then middle America says, ‘Oh God, then that could happen to us.’ And I think that that is what is so scary to them.”
There is another side to that coin, as Ellen Levin, mother of New York murder victim Jennifer Levin, has described it. When someone who is not living a life doing all the right things is killed, it helps distance Kerlin’s middle American from the danger. “Suggesting reasons why a particular person was singled out, that the victim was somehow culpable, makes the public feel fairly safe that this fate could not befall them,” Levin said.
In 1994 a Union, S.C., woman named Susan Smith reported to police that an African-American man jumped into her car, forced her out at gunpoint, and drove away with her two small sons still in the car. For some reason, the network satellite trucks rolled into Union and, day after day, sent news of searches and Smith’s tearful pleas coast to coast. News directors in locales far remote from the crime instructed reporters to “localize” the story. Stations carried cautionary stories about how people should protect themselves from carjackings. On-screen lists of bullet points offered such banal advice as “Lock car doors.”
Nine days after the story broke, Smith confessed that she had made up the whole story. She had killed her sons herself by rolling her car into a lake with the boys inside, supposedly to clear the way for a relationship with a man who didn’t want a “ready-made” family. Journalists who had leaped on the story and swallowed it whole looked foolish and turned on Smith with a betrayed lover’s ferocity, as with Time magazine’s cover: “How Could She Do It?” What few journalists asked themselves was why they were there in the first place, turning a patently local murder case into a national story. Nothing made this clearer than the fact that a similar case the same week in Florida was largely ignored, getting one small news brief in the New York Times and no attention in smaller towns like Reno.
It doesn’t help in the reporting of murders that journalists are discouraged from broadening their view of crime beyond immediate incidents. “Rules of objectivity force reporters to isolate crimes and treat each as a sample of one,” wrote Roy Edward Lotz in Crime and the American Press. One revealing indication of how reporters are discouraged from thinking in broader terms than the immediate incident is an index entry in Mencher’s journalism textbook that elevates agency over concept: “Crime reporting. See police reporting.”
On those occasions when reporters do look up from today’s pool of blood, they usually turn to other coverage that involves more complicity with, instead of scrutiny of, the police, employment of sloganeering of dubious effectiveness ("the community comes together” “take back the streets” “no excuse for domestic abuse” “just say no” “three strikes") and sidebars that add to the level of anxiety, such as pieces on self-defense classes or campus escort services.
There are alternatives. In Texas, Austin’s KVUE in 1996 sharply reduced its crime coverage, setting up five guidelines for when crime stories could get on the air, and became the market’s ratings leader, prompting competitor KVUE to cut its crime coverage even more sharply.
In Reno, there appears little inclination to engage in such experiments, and given the size of the news staffs, a major crime is capable of using up a Reno station’s entire news operation. If the Reno City Council or Washoe County Commission wanted to get away with something, doing it during the days Brianna Denison was missing would have been a great way of hiding it in plain sight.