Would Caylee Anthony's murder have gotten so much press attention if Caylee were a racial minority? Some are pondering this question in the wake of the tragedy that consumed the attention of much of the nation's media.
A Washington Post story on Friday, for instance, reminded its readers of the case of Banita Jacks, who was convicted of murdering her four children in 2008, the same year Caylee Anthony was murdered. Jacks' children, Aja (5), N'Kiah (6), Tatianna (11) and Brittany (16), were black and poor. The stark differences in media coverage may have to do with the race and class differences of those involved.
John Patterson, a native of Orlando, Fla., where the Casey Anthony trial was held, remembers being called for jury duty for a case similar to Caylee's a couple of years ago. In an interview with The Christian Post, Patterson recalled that the case involved a murdered child and the accused, the child's mother, was an overweight black female. Patterson recalled only one reporter in the courtroom, and, after not being selected for the jury, never heard about the case again in the local media, much less the national media.
Even today, few outside of the Raleigh/Durham area of North Carolina have probably heard about four year old Jadon Higganbothan. Jadon, who was black, was allegedly killed by his common-law stepfather, Peter Moses, Jr. who is part of a radical religious sect that believes in a coming race war. Moses was at a hearing for the case on Friday.
This would not be the first time the issue of racial disparities in media coverage has been raised. In 2002 and 2003, the media spotlight was on the disappearance and murder of Laci Peterson. Peterson was pregnant with a son, Conner, at the time of her murder. The attention brought to the case prompted Congress to pass the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, also called Laci and Conner's Law. The act recognizes two victims in violent acts committed against pregnant women. Around the same time, though, LaToyia Figueroa, a pregnant black woman who received little media attention, had disappeared and was later found murdered.
Also, during the Iraq War, Jessica Lynch became a national hero after her military convoy was attacked and she was taken prisoner. Two other females, though, were in the same attack. Shoshana Johnson, who is black, was also captured, and Lori Piestewa, who was Hopi, died in the attack. Neither of these women received much media coverage.
The media functions as a gatekeeper, deciding which news stories to present on any given day. This gatekeeping function combined with the media's perceptions of public expectations means that race can often become a factor in deciding which news to cover, according to Stephen M. Caliendo, who studies race and political communication as Professor of Political Science at North Central College in Naperville, IL, in an interview with The Christian Post.
“With a nearly infinite number of possible stories to cover at any given time, media gatekeepers focus on what they think that readers, listeners or viewers want to learn. Those decisions involve understanding what we expect, which is partially a function of our race and class backgrounds (in addition to our gender and sexual orientation, among other characteristics). This agenda setting function of media affects the stories that we see and hear each day,” said Caliendo.
There are some other factors, though, that also help explain the differences in media coverage between the Anthonys and the Jacks. Much of the media coverage involves the use of visual stimuli. In the Caylee Anthony case, there were some stunning images, such as when 2,000 volunteers showed up to help look for Caylee. In Jacks' case, the victims were found by a police officer.
Also, in Florida, cameras are allowed in the courtroom and evidence, such as photos, could be released to the media as soon as they were submitted by the prosecution. Neither of these are allowed in Washington, D.C., where Jacks was tried and convicted, according to The Washington Post.