In its most recent issue, Newsweek has a story on an ongoing string of unsolved murders in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. The victims in these cases have been poor, Black, and–in some instances at least–have had criminal records. I spoke with Krista Gesaman, the reporter who wrote the piece, and though my quotations in it are among the most obvious and least interesting aspects of the story, it's worth a read.
The thrust of Gesaman's article is that various characteristics of the victims may help explain why the story has received far less attention than other, seemingly less serious (or, at least, less widespread) crimes of recent memory. Unlike the stories of missing women like Laci Peterson, Chandra Levy, Natalee Holloway, and Annie Le, these North Carolina cases have flown under the radar for the most part. The Rocky Mount women don't seem to fit the mainstream media model of sympathetic victim–they aren't educated, upper-middle class, attractive young women.
The victims in Rocky Mount–which residents describe as a "typical Southern town," and is about 40 percent white and more than 50 percent black–were different [than Peterson, Levy, Holloway, et al.]. They were all African-American, many were poor, and some had criminal histories including drug abuse and prostitution.
"If it was someone of a different race, things would have been dealt with the first time around; it wouldn't have taken the fifth or sixth person to be murdered," says Andre Knight, a city-council member and president of the local NAACP chapter. "All these women knew each other and lived in the same neighborhood; this is the sign of a potential serial killer. When it didn't get the kind of attention it needed, it made the African-American community frustrated."
The article doesn't focus exclusively on race, and it's worth checking out in its entirety. If you ask me, the moral of the Rocky Mount case is that when it comes to media focus, surprise and relatability count for a lot. It's a surprise when a boy supposedly flies off on a weather balloon; it's a surprise when a suburban private school has a student shooting. We're less surprised by the shooting in an urban school or neighborhood that we really don't expect to be that safe in the first place. And, accordingly, we get less worked up by violent incidents in such locales, numbed a bit by low expectation to begin with.
And relatability counts too. When the victim of an apparent crime seems like she could be someone we know from school, work, or the house next door, that story hits home harder. Most of the mainstream media is targeted towards the same "mainstream" audience, and so certain victims become more newsworthy than others. For instance, it's no coincidence that American news outlets always go out of their way to tell us the number of American casualties in a foreign disaster, in addition to the total numbers involved–the story grabs our attention more when it involves people just like us.
Sure, there are exceptions to these tendencies, as I'm sure many readers will be quick to note. But overall, some victims get more coverage than others. And as a general rule, race, class, and even attractiveness seem to factor into these decisions of media focus, even if those who write the stories and produce the segments assert otherwise.
In the end, media representations shape but also reflect how the populace at large sees the world. So this is more than just a media-related issue. After all, in many cases they're simply giving us the news they know we'll tune in to.