Pop quiz, hotshot. How many of these names do you recognize?
If you didn’t recognize all of the names, there’s a reason: The American media.
Take Laci Peterson and Evelyn Hernandez. Their cases were nearly identical. Peterson was a 27-year-old pregnant woman who disappeared in December 2002; her remains eventually were found in the San Francisco Bay. Hernandez was a 24-year old pregnant woman who disappeared on May 7, 2002. Her torso washed ashore in the same San Francisco bay that Peterson’s did. Yet Peterson, an attractive, suburban white girl, became the cause celebre for the entire nation, subject of round-the-clock national news coverage. Hernandez, Salvadoran immigrant, languished in obscurity.
Then there’s Natalee Holloway, the blonde high-school girl from Alabama who disappeared in Aruba seventeen days ago. A Lexis search for her name brings up 1,224 responses. Type in the name “Tamika Huston,” the African American woman who disappeared in Spartanburg, SC 12 months ago, and only 23 stories come up.
Finally, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris shocked the nation after they open fired on their high school killing 12, the nation reeled with shock. The case became the inspiration for both the Michael Moore documentary “Bowling for Columbine” and the Gus Van Sant drama Elephant. The story blanketed the airwaves. Articles examining the effects of bullying or parental responsibility or even the music of Marilyn Manson filled editorial columns, magazines and newspapers for months. When Jeff Weise stole his grandfather’s gun and turned it on students at Red Lake High School this year, it disappeared from the airwaves in days. The difference? Columbine is a suburban, middle-class, white school. Red Lake is on an Indian Reservation.
Media attention can have a powerful effect on how a case is handled. It’s time for the media to drop the bias.