This Week’s Other Murder Victim in Boston
Universal Hub’s Adam Gaffin set off a familiar conversation when he counted up the number of Boston Globe stories about the city’s two most recent murder victims. The newspaper has, by his count, published 11 stories about Amy Lord, a young white woman from South Boston who was beaten, kidnapped, and murdered. About the city’s most recent victim before her, a then-unidentified black male shot at 1:30 a.m. Saturday in Roxbury, the Globe has published one story. (We count three if you include stories about other shootings in which his death is mentioned.)
The stark contrast thus stated, Gaffin’s commenters are left to debate whether he is engaging in over-simplified race baiting, or just pointing out an obvious bias, that the Boston Globe—or its readers, or the city it covers, or the nation it resides in—cares more about the life of a white woman than they do a black man. These aren’t, of course, debates that remain specific to the Boston Globe or to this week’s events. When Natalee Holloway went missing in Aruba, she dominated cable news, while in Darfur a genocide took place. This did not go unnoted. While Casey Anthony stood trial for the murder of her daughter, Caylee, countless other children died at the hands of their parents or caretakers. Many of them were black. None of them made the cover of People. But this did not go unnoted, either.
There is a certain “newsiness” disparity in these two specific deaths in Boston that plays a huge factor. Lord was abducted from her apartment building in a seemingly safer area. She was forced to endure a 45-minute trip with her attacker, who demanded that she withdraw money from various ATMs while the city passed her by, unaware of her private terror. And her death came after two other attacks on women in the area. The man’s murder, while violent, lacked these gruesome details, and took place in a community where people have come to expect such crimes.
Another explanation that sets race aside (or reduces its role, anyway) is that the Globe or much of the city is exhibiting the “identifiable victim effect.” Yale psychologist Paul Bloom described this in his New Yorker essay making the “case against empathy” earlier this year:
You can see the effect in the lab. The psychologists Tehila Kogut and Ilana Ritov asked some subjects how much money they would give to help develop a drug that would save the life of one child, and asked others how much they would give to save eight children. The answers were about the same. But when Kogut and Ritov told a third group a child’s name and age, and showed her picture, the donations shot up—now there were far more to the one than to the eight.
Natalie Holloway was a single, easily identifiable victim, according to this theory while Darfur’s deaths were numerous, and constant enough that each one ceased to be a “news” event. It was just the status quo. Amy Lord is identifiable. The Roxbury man is not, and thus he becomes yet another Roxbury shooting victim, of which there have been many lately.
Or he wasn’t identifiable, that is, until the Boston Herald identified him as Perris Haynes, 29, and talked to his family and friends. They all gave the impression that he may have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time in a dangerous neighborhood:
Those who stopped by the sidewalk memorial to the 29-year-old gunned down early Saturday morning in one of the most violent parts of the city yesterday described him as a “hardworking man” and devoted dad who played no part in the gang culture that characterizes the H-Block neighborhood where he grew up.
Haynes worked various contracting jobs. He was a father to a 5-year-old and stepfather to an 8-year-old. He went to Harold Street on Saturday night to DJ a party and buy a laptop from a friend, his girlfriend told the reporter. Police were called there around 1:30 a.m. after reports of a gunshot victim. When the Globe last mentioned the incident, they didn’t report Haynes’s name, but police did tell the paper they were investigating whether the death was gang-related.
The fact is that even putting a name and a face to Haynes, empathy plays a role in how much attention police officers, or newspaper editors, or newspaper readers pay him. Whether because Amy Lord was from the suburbs, or because she was female, or because the odds were low that she would meet a violent end by walking out of her Southie apartment on a weekday morning, or maybe, because she was white, Lord’s death seems to have tapped into something. The newspaper does nothing wrong by reporting on it and covering the heck out of her death. Who among us won’t be following the investigation as it continues?
But what about the relative lack of empathy for Haynes? The death of a young father of two is no small thing either. Haynes, by all available accounts, deserves, if not 11 stories, at least to have his name in the paper, to have his friends and family describe him as a good father and a hard worker. The Boston Herald did well by its city by giving that to him.