When It Comes to Killing, Who’s Worth More?

AP has a story today about a Hartford minister who is claiming that cops and media pay more attention to white murder victims than black ones. Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell recently called for an overhaul of the state’s entire criminal justice system in the wake of the horrific killing of a white suburban mother and two of her kids. That crime has gotten national play and enduring media coverage, while the 17 killings in inner city Hartford (two more than this time last year) have gotten, at best, quick one-off coverage. “It’s sending a double message,” says Rev. Cornell Lewis. “One type of life, beautiful and white, [is] valued. Other kids of life are not valued.”

I can’t speak to Rell’s motivation, but Lewis has a point as far as the media goes. When white teenagers are killed, the stories run for days, even weeks. Remember James Alenson, the Lincoln-Sudbury freshman who was stabbed? Not only did that incident inspire tremendous coverage, it also set off frantic suburban soul searching about raising, teaching, entertaining and medicating children. Meanwhile, when black inner-city teenagers are killed, you get eight column inches inside the B section at best. This is because, in the eyes of society, white suburban kids aren’t supposed to be killing one another.

But there’s more going on than simple racism, as Richard Hanley points out in the AP story. The suburban Connecticut crimes had a strong narrative: Three people in a safe, quiet suburb, tortured and killed by a couple of cons. Beyond that, the story is easy to cover because it’s in the ‘burbs. Going into an inner city neighborhood and knocking on doors is harder, which leads, as Hanley points out, to “drive-by journalism” from skittish reporters.

Plus, from the narrative viewpoint, stories about a small-time crack slinger getting shot aren’t immediately interesting to non inner-city folks. Kid goes down the wrong path, does some dirt and catches a bullet for it. It has the ring of inevitability. These stories can be made interesting, as in this extraordinary Globe piece, but that takes time, something daily papers don’t really have. (As a side note, the novels of George Pelecanos—who also writes for HBO’s The Wire—are especially effective in this regard, particularly Drama City, which I just read and highly recommend.)

It’s hard to quantify the value papers put on the lives of murder victims, but a good rule of thumb is to note which funerals the papers decide to cover, because funeral coverage is a way of further humanizing the victims and their families. For instance, this month the Globe covered two funerals for homicide victims. One for Joanna Mullin, the 6-year-old Weymouth girl who was kidnapped and killed by a cousin; and another for the two children of a troubled Roslindale mother who allegedly poisoned them. Note that they’re both strong and compelling narratives, in addition to being senseless losses of life. It may not be pretty, but it’s certainly a factor in determining coverage.