December 20, 2012

By Thandisizwe Chimurenga

LAWT Contributing Writer


By the middle of December, most of us are supposed to be engaged – full throttle – in the ritual of preparations for Christmas Day, the week of Kwanzaa and the New Year that follows: gift shopping; work-and-school-and-home-schedule rearranging; house cleaning; menu planning; mini-vacation/getaway maneuvers; out-of-town-family-and-or-visitor readiness; menu/meal prep, and resolutions to make (and undoubtedly break).

It is supposed to be a time of merriment and cheer.  It is not supposed to be a time for the funerals of children.

The tragedy that occurred on Friday, Dec. 14, when Adam Lanza walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 children and six adults has dominated news coverage and our collective consciousness on a daily, almost non-stop basis. Speaking at a vigil for the victims at Newtown High School on Dec. 16, President Barack Obama stated, “I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief; that our world too has been torn apart; that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you, we’ve pulled our children tight.  And you must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide; whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it.”

Grief, sorrow and empathy with those who have experience tragedy are all natural, normal human emotions.  Weariness and resentment are also normal human emotions – weariness over the constant exposure to such tragedies and resentment over disparate, sometimes racist treatment of the victims of tragedy – and the perpetrators of it – by the media.

“There will never be an appropriate time to say that this nation only stands at attention when the majority of victims are white Americans, as was the case at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut, so I might as well say it today,” wrote Kirsten West Savali in the online magazine Clutch on Dec. 17.  A mental health professional and commentator, Savali noted that “It is horrifying what happened to those babies …  the thought of what transpired within the confines of Sandy Hook conjures up not just “visceral” emotions, but “primal” urges …,” but that also, “White American children in this country who become victims of gun violence are a sign of shattered innocence, an anomaly that must be analyzed and dissected to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Black and Brown American children who become victims serve as an indictment of our communities, our homes and our parenting.”

But why is this the case?

“Because white victims are perceived to be the most compelling crime victims … they have emerged as focal points of crime reporting,” wrote Nadra Kareem Nittle in October of this year.  Nittle interviewed and quoted Sonia R. Jarvis, a distinguished lecturer in the school of public affairs at Baruch College of The City University of New York, to gain an understanding of why so much media attention is focused on the white victims of heinous crimes. Nittle’s article, “White Crime Victims Favored in Mainstream Media Reports,” was written for the Maynard Media Center for Structural Inequity, a project of the Robert C. Maynard Institute.

A local scholar Nittle spoke to is Travis L. Dixon, an associate professor of communications studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, who gave an economic reason for disparate racial coverage.  “Journalism operates as a business and news editors and producers tend to create content to cater to their audiences … the assumption is that most people who are watching tend to be white, tend to be women, tend to be moderate to somewhat conservative and maybe over 30,” Dixon is quoted as saying.

Such a “package” often results in news editors choosing coverage that may resonate most with a predominantly white audience which will – hopefully “translate into higher ratings, which translate into bigger profits,” according to Dixon.

Not all subscribe to the economic angle of disparate media coverage however. Indeed, many critics of media point to what they call “humanizing portraits” of white perpetrators of violence versus the “criminal, pathologizing” of Black and Brown perpetrators as nothing more than good old fashioned white supremacy. 

Son of Baldwin, a New York City-based blogger whose site of the same name is described as a “literary, socio-political, sexual, pop culture blog,” wrote on the site’s Facebook page on Dec. 15, “It seems that we do this, all the time, without fail: Whenever one of these white male patriarchs goes on a rampage, we start to investigate and promote all the positive qualities they had prior to the shooting to explain why we never expected it. …  If he was nonwhite, the word ‘genius’ would NEVER appear in any story about him. Instead, we’d be talking about the projects he grew up in and his run-ins with the law.”

Dave “Davey D” Cook, Bay Area-based Hip Hop journalist and radio show host, also took the media to task in his “Open Letter to the Media about the Sandy Hook School Shooting Coverage,” on Dec. 18 on his popular blog “Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner.”  Writing sarcastically to thank the media for the ways in which they sympathetically told the story of Newtown mass murderer Lanza and his mother Nancy (Lanza’s first victim, killed with guns she had purchased because she feared the collapse of society), Davey also thanked the media for its future coverage of communities of color.  “Next time there’s a call for gang injunctions, stiffer prison sentences etc., thank you in advance for bringing on experts to discuss the mindset of young folks at risk and what steps we can take to turn them around. Thanks in advance for humanizing folks who are having difficult times in our communities the same way you did Adam Lanza, his mom Nancy and the rest of his family. Imagine if Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin and their families had gotten such wonderful coverage?”

No parent should have to experience such a horrible event as losing their child.  And yet, it happens every day, in every city of the United States and other parts of the world.  Despite the hypocrisy of lack of media coverage of those such tragedies, Kirsten West Savali noted in her online essay that, “ … the close to 300 Chicago Public Schools students killed by violence over a 3 year period still deserve a vigil; the 27 Palestinian children killed by U.S. and Israeli funded weaponry in this latest conflict deserve a vigil; the 178 children killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen also deserve a vigil.”

Savali is correct:  all of those children senselessly murdered in Chicago, Gaza and elsewhere deserve vigils and media coverage that recognizes their humanity just like the children of Newtown, Connecticut.  More importantly, all of those children – collectively – deserved a world where vigils and media coverage would not be necessary.  All of those children deserved better. 

Category: News