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Justice Lab

When Does Murder Make The News? It Depends On The Victim’s Race.

Mainstream media is less likely to cover Black homicide victims and less likely to portray them as complex human beings, a new study shows.

When Raymond Griffin was shot and killed on a Chicago porch in 2016, he was a father to two children, an uncle, a cousin whose personality was “funny and crazy,” according to an online memorial. But you’d never know that from the news coverage his death received.

“Raymond D. Griffin, 30, was shot in the neck and taken to Stroger Hospital, where he died at 6:30 p.m.,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported in November 2016. “He lived on the same block where the shooting happened.”

In a newly published study, a group of sociology researchers gathered all the mainstream print and digital news reports about all the murders in Chicago during 2016, and found that Griffin’s treatment fit a pattern: Homicides in predominantly Black neighborhoods received less coverage than those in predominantly White neighborhoods, and the coverage of murders in Black areas was less likely to portray victims as complex human beings.

It’s reflective, the authors say, of a sense that violence is routine and expected in certain areas, and tragic and newsworthy in others. And the lopsided coverage contributes to a feedback loop, “reinforcing this idea that certain neighborhoods are inherently dangerous and unsafe, and others are made up of cousins and sons and mothers,” said Shannon Morrissey, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Chicago and one of the paper’s authors.

2016 was an especially violent year in Chicago, even in a city known for its bloodshed. That year Chicago saw 765 murders, almost twice as many as the previous several years. The news media did not cover them all equally, the study found.

On average, Black victims received 2.8 news articles each, versus 3.8 news articles for White victims and 2.6 for Hispanic victims. White victims were more than twice as likely to be discussed in terms of their relationships and roles in the community than victims who were Black or Hispanic.

The authors were also interested in the intersection of race and place, they said, seeing “the stigma placed on minority neighborhoods … as immoral, dangerous, and generally repulsive,” they write in the paper. And in fact, their findings bore this out: Homicides in predominantly White neighborhoods received the most coverage, regardless of the race of the person murdered there.

It is true that predominantly Black neighborhoods in Chicago experience more homicides. Redlining and other discriminatory housing practices have led to a deeply segregated city, and generations of institutional neglect and racism have resulted in high rates of poverty, mistrust of police and other factors that fuel this dynamic. But even accounting for the lopsided murder rates, the paper found, White deaths still received more attention and more nuanced treatment.

The authors’ emphasis on humanity—on whether the dead are portrayed as brothers, sons, mentors—sets this research apart from previous studies, which have tended to focus only on how many articles were devoted to each murder. “There really is something that we intuitively feel about victims when it’s just a name, it’s just a number, versus when the roles, the value their life had to other people was fully explored,” said Morrissey, the co-author. The paper, called “Whose Lives Matter?” appeared in the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity.

Articles about Black murder victims were more likely to be a rote list of facts: name, age, location of shooting, date and time of death. White victims, and victims in predominantly White neighborhoods, more often got tributes from friends and loved ones. A White teenager was described by a teacher as “bright and funny and capable." A Black man killed in an upscale, predominantly White neighborhood was a “sweet and giving man,” according to his fiancee.

The research comes amid a national reckoning about what value our institutions place on Black lives, and what structural changes can begin to address centuries of inequity. Whether any one death is considered “newsworthy” reflects the lived experiences of editors and reporters, who are overwhelmingly White, said Lewis Raven Wallace, whose book and podcast The View From Somewhere explore how U.S. journalism has failed to reflect the diversity of its communities.

“News media has not given the kind of response to Black death in general that it gives to White death,” Wallace said.

To be sure, U.S. newspapers, including those in Chicago, have faced an increasingly bleak outlook for years now, making it harder and harder to cover their communities. The Chicago Tribune has suffered more than a decade of layoffs, sell-offs and a bankruptcy, and morale at the paper has been low. “Against that backdrop, there’s no way as a news organization you could keep up with 800 murders,” said Peter Nickeas, who covers violence at the Tribune. “That’s to say nothing of the 3,200 gunshot victims that survived.”

Nickeas said he hustles to the homes of victims’ families, attends vigils and visits schools. But there are ever-fewer reporters to do the work, and in the meantime the shootings continue, and “every one of them is worthy.” Telling nuanced stories that touch on gang violence, poverty, neglect, Nickeas said—“it’s really complicated, and shrinking newspapers are getting out of the business of complicated.”

One solution is for strapped newsrooms to cover fewer shootings and expand their coverage beyond individual crimes, say researchers and advocates who study the issue. After all, most local papers don’t cover every area death from Covid-19, says Jim MacMillan, director of the Initiative for Better Gun Violence Reporting—nor should they.

“The reporting around Covid-19 asks, ‘What’s happening, what does the data say, who’s responsible, what are they doing, when is there going to be a solution, who is suffering?’” MacMillan says. This wide-lens systemic coverage does a better job holding leaders to account and keeps daily deaths in context. “Everybody should be covering gun violence the way they cover Covid-19 locally.”

Letrell Crittenden, a journalism professor at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and a former police reporter, said that to cover communities of color fairly and with nuance, newspaper reporters, especially White ones, need to show up for school board meetings, regular coffee dates with residents, and other events. “You’re not going to take time to humanize communities that you have no day to day connection with,” he said. Too often newsrooms “basically treat these communities as extractive entities—the only time the media show up in their communities is when bad things happen.”

Beth Schwartzapfel Twitter Email is a staff writer who often covers addiction and health, probation and parole, and LGBTQ+ issues. She is the reporter and host of Violation, a podcast examining an unthinkable crime, second chances, and who pulls the levers of power in the justice system.