Why is the stabbing death of Tessa Majors national news?
You’ve seen the story. Repeatedly. A freshman at Barnard College, an all-woman’s division of Columbia University, was walking in a park near her New York City campus last week and she was robbed and stabbed, dying shortly thereafter from her injuries.
It is a heartbreak. It is the loss of a sacred life of promise, the dreams of Tessa Majors and her family stolen along with her pocket money.
It makes you want to cry.
But it is, in the context of a violent nation of some 325 million people, par for the course. On the average day in the United States, 46 people will be murdered, and five of those will be stabbed to death.
How is it, from a news judgement standpoint, that this particular victim has gotten this particular press? What is it about this crime or this situation that has made it a national story for five days now, while the same network newscasts have not had a word about the more than 200 other Americans who have been slain in the same timeframe?
That isn’t a question about Tessa Majors, the crime committed against her, or even the circumstances surrounding the 13-year-old who is accused of being complicit in her death. It is a question about the American television news media.
Because it is clear a different set of rules were used in determining the newsworthiness of this crime. And analyzing those rules, and those differences, can help us understand television news, and maybe some of its weaknesses.
So let’s ask some questions.
Was it because she is white? Was it because there were lots of nice pictures of her? Was it because it happened in the backyard of the network news elites? Was it because it involved a student at one of the most expensive and exclusive colleges in America? Was it because it involved the racially tinged subject of marauding attackers in New York City parks?
Is there somewhere in the planning meetings of the network news a marketability metric, in which they decide which crimes can be turned into big stories, to draw viewers or something? How do they decide to turn this one or that one into celebrity crimes while ignoring hundreds and thousands of others?
How does that work?
And is it an exploitation?
If the young men who murdered Tessa Majors profited from her death, are the news networks doing so also? In one instance, she was held immobile by one teen while another took her possessions and then stabbed her over and over. In the other instance, the report of her death was played over and over on a multi-million dollar national newscast. One netted $20 or so, the other paid big salaries to big names and contributed to the profitability of massive news corporations.
Was the selection of this story based on the particulars of the crime, or on the ability of the networks to use the crime to manipulate viewers for its benefit and enrichment? Is a young white female with alluring photos someone who can be turned into a post-mortem celebrity – is that the basis of this story’s newsworthiness?
Because there is no trend or larger issue illustrated by this story. There is no deeper insight into anything in this. On the contrary, there may even be a distortion, and the winking nod of racial division.
Because while we know the race of the victim, we have also all presumed about the race of the assailants. And the people in that news planning meeting knew that. And in playing this story big they have banged the drum of black-on-white crime while being able to deny doing so.
Such black-on-white crime is absolutely a thing, a horrific phenomenon touching countless families all across the country.
But it is, proportionally, a far smaller phenomenon than crime in which black or brown people are victims – typically of other black or brown people.
If you are looking for a crime that typifies or represents the sad reality of violence in America, it’s not a wealthy white girl at an elite university in one of the richest neighborhoods in the country. And if the only crime you care about are those that involve white people in wealthy communities, you’ve got another problem.
If black people die in Chicago and it’s a story about a broken society and gun laws, while a young white woman dies in New York City and it’s a story about tragedy and lost potential, well, that difference is not healthy or rational.
Yes, it’s a horrifying and heartbreaking loss that this dear daughter was slain.
But it is an equally horrifying and heartbreaking loss when any dear son or daughter is slain.
We are a nation whose founding document says we are created equal.
One day maybe we’ll also be covered by the news equally.