From the post-pandemic spike in murder in 2020-21, murders are down last year and this year. Did you know that, or did you feel that murders are out of control? The old adage, “if it bleeds, it leads,” doesn’t care what impression it gives the public as to the frequency of murder, but what the public cares enough to watch to turn the dial to their network. And murders capture eyeballs, even if the reporting creates the impression that crime is far worse than it is.
But that same old adage needs tweaking, because these days, bleeding isn’t good enough for leading. Not all murders get the same treatment in the media.
Aréanah Preston’s murder in Chicago provides an example of this media trend. Upon getting home from her shift as a police officer early on the morning of May 6, Preston, 24, was assailed by a group of men who’d allegedly spent the evening committing a string of armed robberies. Joseph Brooks, the 18-year-old who confessed to shooting Preston, had been arrested nine times since 2019 for armed robbery and carjacking, among other things. The remaining three suspects also have multiple previous arrests on a slew of serious charges, from armed robbery and carjacking to possession of a stolen vehicle and weapons offenses.
Preston was days away from graduating with her master’s degree. She was a black woman. Why didn’t her murder make the front page? It wasn’t entirely ignored, but nobody marched demanding “no justice, no peace,” for Preston. Is it because Aréanah Preston also happened to be a Chicago cop? Is it because Aréanah Preston’s killers were not white supremacists, but just ordinary bad dudes?
Why wasn’t Aréanah Preston’s murder huge news? It would have at another time, so why not now?
At Reason, Billy Binion argues that murders like Preston’s are no longer sufficiently “special” to be worthy of front page treatment.
The point is not that Preston’s story is special. The point is that it isn’t special. It’s commonplace, and that’s the issue. But the Prestons of the world are far less likely to attract national attention, inspire news cycles, and spur debate. In some sense, we’ve subconsciously accepted that things like this happen to people like her in places like that.
Did the murder of Aréanah Preston fail to capture national public attention because it’s become commonplace, or is there another influence that downplays this murder in favor of other tragedies?
There are many such stories. Here’s another: In late March, Philip Meyers allegedly approached John Sarquiz from behind, sucker-punched him, and then kicked him multiple times in the head, killing him. Meyers—who had 17 prior arrests and a homicide conviction from 1999—took cash from Sarquiz and threw the wallet back on his dying body.
A horrible murder, and yet one that few, if any, heard about. Why?
It’s easy to deprioritize those like Preston and Sarquiz, however, when criminal justice is a culture war debate—as opposed to one grounded in policy, where, ideally, the system targets the small group of prolific offenders responsible for the majority of violent crime. Prioritizing these types of clear-cut offenses, which too often go unsolved, is part of the solution.
But we did hear about the killing of Jordan Neely on a New York subway. What made Neely’s life so much more interesting to the media and the public than Preston’s or Sarquiz’s?
To put it more plainly: The choice is not between “backing the blue” no matter what or “abolishing the police,” although those are often the solutions portrayed on cable news and Twitter. The voices behind them are interesting, and it’s understandable why they draw attention. But those options do not reflect the reality of the public safety policy debate.
Has murder become too commonplace to be worthy of mention unless it fits without a culture war narrative that serves to create an impression the media wants to convey? Mass murders tend to be useful to promote gun reform or to demonstrate the evils of white supremacy, except when the murderer didn’t use an “assault rifle” or wasn’t a white man. Murders of black people matter when their killer is a white man, but not if their killer is a black man with a dozen priors. Murders give rise to millions of people marching in the streets, a few of whom burning and looting when they’re either very angry or think they can get away with it, when the killer is a cop. And it doesn’t really matter whether the cop was a racist murderer or just a cop doing his job.
The tragic killing of Jordan Neely in New York City birthed a weekslong news cycle and offered pundits left and right the chance to confirm all of their ideological priors. It’s not every day a homeless man, whose life mattered, is choked to death on a subway train. Meanwhile, Preston and Sarquiz’s deaths were unsurprising. Their murders were somehow simultaneously appalling and mundane—which is all the more reason not to look away.
The tragic killing of Jordan Neely was worthy of public notice. But so too were the tragic killings of Preston and Sarquiz. They were not so mundane, so commonplace, as to not rise to the top of the news cycle. No longer does it lead merely because it bleeds. In order to make the front page, it has to be a murder in furtherance of a narrative, such that it’s the narrative that distinguishes one murder from another murder, that elevates the death of one human being over the death of another, so what you learn isn’t merely that a murder occurred, but a murder to be exploited for the cause.
It’s not that murders are too common to be worthy of our attention. Indeed, the murder rate spiked and is falling, so that murders are becoming less common and the ones that occur are relatively more significant, at least as murders if not as demonstrative proof of a narrative that furthers the cause.