On Monday, the Washington Post’s Metro section reported on two murders that had occurred the previous Saturday night in the District. The victims were about the same age—34 and 32. They were killed at around the same time—10:45 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. They were both shot to death.
The differences: One was white; the other was black. One was killed in a long-since-gentrified neighborhood in Northwest, the other in a long-depressed section of Southeast.
Guess which crime got more ink in the Post.
The white victim was Gregory Shipe, whose killing in Mount Pleasant rated a front-page Metro story written by two Post staffers on Monday, plus a follow-up on Tuesday written by two different staffers. Total Post word count on the Shipe killing: 1,266.
The black victim was Michael Lanham, whose killing in Barnaby Terrace rated a mention in Monday’s “In Brief” column. Total Post word count on the Lanham killing: 68.
The murders put the Post’s institutional values concerning human life in stark relief, and at least one observer saw a discrepancy. “I didn’t see anything on the news about my grandson, but they’re still talking every day about that man in [Mount Pleasant],” says Hilda Meredith, Lanham’s grandmother.
At the Post, there’s a longstanding news formula for deciding why one murder story merits 18 times the coverage of another:
•Highlight the uncommon. “The quality of being different or unusual is an important factor in making news judgments,” notes Robert McCartney, Metro’s top editor. On that front, he notes that “it was unusual to have a homicide” in Mount Pleasant. The first story on the Shipe murder quoted Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham as saying that it was the neighborhood’s first fatal shooting in almost two years. But don’t get the impression that it was the first murder in almost two years: The Post ran an item in June about a woman who was allegedly strangled to death in the neighborhood.
•Highlight the “random.” Shipe was outside walking his dog when his assailant murdered him—a detail that gave the story a high “random” rating in the Post formula. Lanham, on the other hand, was the victim of what cops told the Post was a drug-related crime. “It’s more unusual and more newsy for a guy to be killed randomly out walking a dog than in a drug-related incident,” says McCartney.
•Be colorblind. A random killing that fells a black person draws the same Post reaction as a random killing that fells a white person, according to McCartney. As evidence, he cites prominently placed stories on Dorine Fostion, the African-American woman from Southeast who was killed last month by a stray bullet while watching television. “Race had nothing to do with this,” says McCartney.
There are two ways to cover murders. One is to take the noble position that any homicide is a tragedy that deserves top billing in the daily newspaper. In 1993, for instance, the Chicago Tribune produced a yearlong, front-page series called “Killing Our Children,” documenting each of the area’s 61 child homicides that year.
Big-city murder rates and newsroom staffing constraints, however, doom efforts to sustain the every-murder-is-equal approach. So editors have to take the second approach: make choices.
In recent years, Post editors have made the choice to package routine murder news in one of two places: Metro’s “In Brief” column or its “Crime & Justice” column. These are two of the paper’s most impenetrable pieces of real estate, mainly for their stubborn predictability. They do, however, serve the important purpose of allowing editors to say they cover just about every homicide in town.
Reading through these columns exposes the paper’s formula for typing up a murder that it doesn’t care about. Such an item typically follows three directives, in order:
1. State that person has died a violent death.
2. State location of incident plus name and age of victim.
3. State hospital where victim was pronounced dead.
Here’s the formula in action, on Lanham’s killing:
A 32-year-old man was shot to death late Saturday night in Southeast, D.C. police said.
Michael Lanham of the 2300 block of Minnesota Avenue SE was shot at least twice about 11:30 p.m. in the 1300 block of Barnaby Terrace, said Sgt. Joe Gentile, a police spokesman.
Lanham was pronounced dead at Howard University Hospital.
In 2004, a year in which the District recorded 198 murders, Metro ghettoized at least 45 Southeast killings in capsule format. It’s a style that the paper uses for other jurisdictions, including Price George’s County. Since the items are so bare-bones, it’s often impossible to divine just what considerations Post editors use in determining whether killings are instances of “dog bites man.” McCartney’s comments suggest that the Post considers a victim’s involvement in the drug trade as justification for dispensing with his death in just a few lines. Between 2001 and 2004, drugs accounted for the motive in 30 percent of D.C. homicides, according to the Metropolitan Police Department.
Yet somehow, when drug-related murders occur a bit closer to where Post writers and editors actually live—i.e., Northwest D.C. or thereabouts—the coverage can get a bit more thorough. Take, for instance, this brief, from Oct. 11, 2004:
An unidentified man was fatally shot yesterday morning at 14th and W streets NW, D.C. police said.
The man, who was described as being in his twenties, was shot about 1:30 a.m., police said.
City Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) described the killing as “shocking and upsetting in a neighborhood that is really, really changing for the better.” Graham, who represents the area where the shooting occurred, said police “do have some witnesses.”
He said that “there were people seen running away.”
The council member said he understood that the killing might have been drug-related. The victim, he said, “may have owed some money.”
He said that at the time of the shooting, there was a substantial police presence in the area, which is becoming a vibrant dining, entertainment and residential section….
Murders along Minnesota or Alabama Avenue don’t often get this bonus treatment. Perhaps these areas don’t have a presshound councilmember like Graham. But far Southeast D.C. is like the Metro section’s foreign assignments, where victims are not so much victims as casualties. When the fallen dies of multiple gunshot wounds and has a criminal record, you can almost hear the editors chanting, “Make it a brief.”—Erik Wemple and Sarah Godfrey