We’ve all heard of Laci Peterson, JonBenet Ramsey and Caylee Anthony. But what about Evelyn Hernandez, a pregnant woman whose decapitated body washed ashore in a San Francisco bay, a case eerily similar to Peterson’s? What about Jorelys Rivera, a seven-year-old girl raped, stabbed and beaten to death in a case that parallels the gruesome death of Ramsey? What about Alayja Coleman, a toddler whose body was found stuffed in a suitcase after her mother allegedly starved her to death, a murder cover-up similar to that in Anthony’s case?
I’m betting many of you have never heard of Hernandez, Rivera or Coleman, but why? Why does one tragic murder get national media coverage and the other largely ignored? Is it as simple as what some social critics have described as “Missing White Woman syndrome”—a disproportionate emphasis in mainstream media on the cases of white upper-middle class attractive women?
If so, then how did the story of a young black man’s murder buck the trend and capture the hearts and minds of people across the nation?
Based off the types of stories typically covered by mainstream media, the story of Trayvon Martin’s murder very well could have been confined to a short blurb in a local Florida paper and, maybe, a quick story on the local evening newscast. But it wasn’t. In the month since his death, Martin’s name, face and story have been broadcast across the nation.
Social media is a big factor that set Martin’s story apart from what Huffington Post reporter Trymaine Lee termed your “garden-variety killing” in an interview with NPR’s On The Media. As I wrote in my last post, it’s because of the massive online petition and rallies and protests that started through social media that finally mainstream media, and the justice system, took notice.
Lee described the nature of the murder, coupled with social media as the “perfect storm…the driving force behind this story is the ability for people to share it quickly and easily.”
Lee, as well as New York Times columnist Charles Blow, was among the first to report on the case. Blow says he reported on it, in part, due to the urging of followers on Facebook and Twitter. “People started sending me tweets saying, ‘What are you going to say about this case?’” he told the New York Times.
Another factor could be a growing diversity in today’s newsrooms. The reason why a Laci Peterson or a Caylee Anthony got so much attention is because reporters, editors and producers could more easily identify with those stories and sympathize with women and children who looked like their mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts. And now we’re seeing that same reasoning applied to Martin’s story.
“On this story, there is a certain degree of understanding that comes from minorities, and particularly African-Americans, just because we’ve lived it,” CNN anchor Don Lemon told the New York Times.
“When we see these cases, we see our sons…it’s like covering a war when you live in the war zone. It’s a present, horrifying possibility,” Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates told On the Media.
Yet, just as I’d like to declare that the Trayvon Martin story represents a shift in what mainstream media chooses to cover, and that the times, they are a changing, I’m reminded of stories like Ramarley Graham and Shem Walker. I’m betting, just like Hernandez, Rivera and Coleman, you’ve probably never heard of Graham or Walker. That’s because, unfortunately, while Martin’s story represents a big step in the right direction, we aren’t fully there yet.
Just like Martin, Ramarley Graham was an unarmed black teen who was shot and killed, though this time by an NYPD officer, just weeks before Martin’s death. Just like Martin, his family held marches and rallies to demand justice. Just like Martin, a Facebook page devoted to “Justice 4 Ramarley Graham” started in the hopes of sparking a call to action. So why did Graham’s story not spread much beyond the local New York City media market, while Martin’s story is now being told around the nation, if not the world?
In a piece on OpEdNews, writer Ravi Katari says the difference is because Martin’s story represents a “horizontal” form of racism, whereas Graham’s story represents a “vertical” one. In Martin’s story, he and George Zimmerman were more or less both “members of the same socio-economic locale.” Yet in Graham’s story, the victim and the shooter were from two different classes since Officer Richard Haste was a New York City cop.
“Class incongruities do not fit the narrative of the mainstream corporate-owned media,” Katari wrote. “You’re not supposed to think about institutional oppression. Bitterness and suspicion needs to be aimed around you, not above you.”
Similarly, Shem Walker was an unarmed black man shot and killed on his mother’s stoop in Brooklyn by an off-duty police officer in 2009. And like Graham, his story failed to reach much beyond local media. Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates brought up Walker in his On the Media interview, saying, “I talk about these issues with regularity, and they disappear.” He says getting to the point where mainstream media will report on how young black men interact with police “will be a long, long, long fight.”
So while catapulting the story of Trayvon Martin’s death into the national spotlight is definitely a step in the right direction, it seems there is still a long way to go before mainstream audiences see equal coverage of stories spanning race and class.