Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Media bias and the death penalty

In a case that has been very closely monitored by the abolition movement for many years now, a panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has voted 2-1 that Kenny Richey is entitled to a new trial. This is an innocence case.

Unfortunately, after the ruling came down, the Associated Press moved a story on the national AP wire (meaning millions of newspaper readers in the U.S. will end up seeing it) with the headline, "Child Killer's Death Penalty Overturned."

Of course....the whole point of the court's ruling is that Richey might be innocent, in which case he is not a "child killer."

It should seem patently anyone except some of the folks in the media who report on the death penalty.

Lest anyone out there think that I immediately jump up and down and yell "media bias, media bias!" please keep in mind that I am a former, longtime newspaper reporter with some 3,000 bylines under my belt.

It should further be noted that much media bias is not ideological in nature but institutional. To the copy editor on the AP copy desk who wrote this headline, it was probably one of 50 headlines he or she was writing that day. He or she probably didn't stop and think about the subjectivity of the chosen headline.

The following email message was sent last night to an abolition email listserv that I subscribe to:

There has been some buzz on the Ohioans to Stop Executions list about the coverage of today's decision overturning Kenny Richey's conviction and death sentence in Ohio. Specifically, a number of newspapers are running the story with the headline "Child Killer's Death Penalty Overturned". Since the whole story is about a finding that the trial which convicted Richey does not meet legal standards, he ought to be described as an "alleged killer" or an "accused killer".

These newspapers all seem to be running the AP story, although the AP disclaims any responsibility for the headline.

I'm pretty sure letters from many OTSE members and others who have been following this case closely will be coming, but newspapers with a local clientele are much more likely to publish letters from people within their distribution area. I would therefore urge everyone on this list, if any paper in your general area publishes this biased headline, please write a letter to the editor taking them to task. I'm worried that coverage like this reinforces the popular right-wing fallacy about justly deserved death sentences being overturned on technicalities. Many of the technicalities, including this one, cast serious doubt on the correctness of the conviction.

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