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Thoughts on the media coverage of child homicides

May 26, 2011 1 comment

The Caylee Anthony murder case is almost* inescapable these days.

In spite of the fact that there were three other major criminal justice stories in the news on May 25, the Casey Anthony trial was still easily located on the front page of the internet sites of most major national news outlets. If you search “”casey anthony” trial” on Google you’ll return about 6.5 million hits. A Twitter search for “Casey Anthony” will pop a rapidly moving feed with almost minute by minute commentary.

There is no question that a substantial amount of ink, airtime, bandwidth and, other journalistic resources, have been dedicated to this story since Caylee was reported missing in June 2008. The real question, in my mind at least, is why so much attention is focused on this particular case. Of the more than 1,500 children who die in the United States as a result of abuse or neglect—that’s about one child fatality due to abuse and neglect every six hours—what makes this case particularly newsworthy?

The radically disproportionate coverage of Caylee’s death was thrown into sharp relief for me yesterday, when I read the Chicago Tribune article about the close confinement and subsequent death Christian, of a Northwest Indiana boy. A Google search for “”Christian Choate” murder” returns about 40,000 hits, and Twitter is practically silent. Again, what distinctions can be drawn to distinguish Caylee’s death from Christian’s death to justify the national media attention heaped on one as opposed to the other?

I’m troubled by the singling out of the Caylee Anthony case. I can’t do anything other than speculate as to why it has grabbed the attention of the media and the public in the way that it has. But the caricature of child abuse and neglect that is painted in the Caylee Anthony case unsettles me. First, I think that by focusing such intense attention on one incident of child homicide that it somehow degrades the significance of the volume of child deaths due to abuse and neglect that are out there. Why aren’t the other victims deserving of this public scrutiny? Second, I think that because Casey Anthony is a young, relatively attractive middle-class woman that it is hard for the audience of, say the Today Show, to understand how somebody like that could allegedly commit a crime like this. However, instead of an open, engaged discussion about child abuse and neglect in the United States, what we have ended up with is an energetic attempt to portray Casey Anthony as someone who is significantly different than, and pathological in comparison to, the average young mother (that isn’t to say that child abuse should be normalized, simply to say that by slicing out perpetrators from the “normal” population that it becomes easier for all of us to focus attention on what is wrong with the individual offender rather than on systemic and community problems). By holding up such a case as an example, I think it is easier for all of us to convince ourselves that this is a unique event.

*The Old Grey Lady has remained relatively Anthony free….

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