In a famous essay about crime and the British press, George Orwell identified the kinds of murder cases that excited the news media and titillated the public. The victims, he wrote, tended to be middle-class; the alleged perpetrators were seemingly respectable members of the community; the motives were typically sexual or romantic in nature. And none of the cases was open and shut, leaving ample room to speculate about the outcome.
That was another time (1946) and another place (postwar Britain), but the enormous media attention accorded the George Huguely-Yeardley Love murder trial in Charlottesville suggests not much has changed.
More than 200 reporters, photographers and TV producers are credentialed to cover the trial, according to Ric Barrick, a spokesman for the city of Charlottesville.
In addition to local outlets, including The Post and Baltimore Sun (Huguely is from Chevy Chase; Love was from the Baltimore area), the trial has received extensive national coverage. Among those who’ve registered to cover it are representatives from the three broadcast networks’ morning shows, CNN, “48 hours,” “Dateline,” “20/20,” the New York Times, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal and several authors researching books on the case. The Times of London is covering it, too.
The only thing that’s stopped the case from turning into a full-blown circus (think Casey Anthony) is Judge Edward Hogshire’s decision to ban TV cameras from his courtroom.
Why, in a nation that averages more than 15,000 murders a year, do a few crimes or trials gain such attention?
The answer may be in Orwell’s basic formulation, with a few contemporary American wrinkles thrown in.
First, to build sustained interest over the many weeks of an investigation and trial, the outcome must be in doubt, says Scot Safon, executive vice president of the HLN cable network, which often broadcasts live trials. As in Orwell’s day, crimes that are resolved quickly, where guilt and innocence aren’t at issue, don’t rate much attention, he notes. In Huguely’s case, the question is whether he is guilty of first-degree murder.
Safon denies that factors such as the race, wealth, age and telegenic qualities of the victim or the accused are critical. “I have never been part of a discussion where race or class or looks was a determinant of how much time and attention we would give to the case,” he says.
But the record of recent years suggests otherwise. Almost all of the great media spectacles surrounding crime and punishment in America over the past 30 years or so have involved one or more of the following: young white women, celebrities, or wealthy people.
A short list of the most notorious trials includes those of Claus von Bulow; “Scarsdale diet doctor” murderer Jean Harris; the Menendez brothers; O.J. Simpson; Scott Peterson; Phil Spector; Amanda Knox; Casey Anthony; and Conrad Murray, the physician who was convicted last fall of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson (whose trial on child molestation charges was a sensation in 2005).
“Race, gender, youth and attractiveness are all factors in whose stories are found to be media-worthy,” said Sheri L. Parks, an American studies professor at the University of Maryland. In Love’s case, she said, “the vigorous young athlete turns into the imperiled damsel in distress. . . . Young, white and attractive women are often positioned this way” not just in the news but in TV shows, movies and books, such as the popular “Twilight” series.
Huguely overturns a stereotype, she suggests: “Instead of the mythical black male stranger, the face of the suspected villain is becoming that of the white boyfriend [or] husband.” In that sense, Parks says, the media narrative is moving toward matching the crime statistics: Women have always been more likely to be attacked by men of their own race, and by men they already know.
Huguely, 24, and Love, 22, both students at the University of Virginia, fit the media template almost perfectly. She was an attractive young white woman, a promising student and athlete. Huguely is the handsome, athletic scion of a wealthy family with deep roots in the Washington area; he attended the Landon School, an exclusive prep school in Bethesda. Enhancing the narrative of privilege and prestige, they attended an elite university and played intercollegiate lacrosse, a sport often associated with wealthy private institutions.
James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, points out that the media are often attracted to victims deemed vulnerable. This explains why there’s enormous coverage of school shootings, but not of those that occur in other offices, which tend to involve adults. It also lies behind the so-called Missing White Girl Syndrome, in which the disappearance of young, middle-class white women — Polly Klaas, Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart, Natalee Holloway, Jaycee Dugard — attracts far more attention than similar cases involving men, women from minority backgrounds or older people.
Critics see this at work in other circumstances, too. Pfc. Jessica Lynch — young, pretty, white — drew inordinate attention at the start of the Iraq war in 2003 when she was injured and taken prisoner during an attack on her convoy. The media gave far less attention to two other soldiers who were part of the same convoy: Shoshana Johnson, a young African American woman, and Lori Piestewa, a Native American. Johnson was injured and taken prisoner like Lynch. Piestewa was killed, becoming the first Native American woman in history to die in combat for the U.S. military.
“The media doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It tends to give the readers what they’re interested in,” says Fox. “Most readers and viewers are white. They identify with crimes involving white people. When it’s a black person, unfortunately, they don’t identify with the victim.”
Indeed, as in Orwell’s day, media interest is far from blind or equal. Last week, as Huguely went to trial with TV cameras and reporters on his heels, a D.C. Superior Court judge sentenced 20-year-old Kwan Kearney to 60 years in prison for first-degree murder in the shooting of Joseph Sharps Jr., a student at Spingarn High School, in 2010.
Never heard of Kearney or Sharps?
Staff writer Jenna Johnson contributed to this story.