Abandoned Babies & Terrible Mothers: Media Coverage Bias
A tragedy has unfolded in my city. Last week, a six-month-old baby (who was black) was found in the hallway of an apartment complex, strapped into his car seat, healthy but alone. The media reported that the baby was found there with no clues to his identity or how he came to be alone in an apartment complex. The comments quickly filled up with thoughts like this, from Marilyn Williams:
whoever left that child that is obviously badly lacking in responsibility and should NEVER had the option of having that beautiful, innocent baby returned . . . Dang idiotic immature, undeserving woman!!!!!! (or man!!!!)
On this media report, comments were much the same. Commenters discussed how they hoped this baby found the "forever home" or "good home" he deserved.
Perhaps most heartlessly of all, commenter Larry Haney said this:
When they catch this mother. It is going to cost us tax payers more money keeping her in prison then if she was able to get public aid.
A couple of people noted that something may have happened to the mother, but the overwhelming public response reiterated a few themes:
- This baby needed a better home than the one he came from.
- This mother (almost universally, very few mentions of the father in the initial reports) was a horrible person needing punishment and shame.
The next day, a man came forward claiming to be the child's father. He was from out of state and said that the baby's mother and the child had left a few days earlier to visit relatives in St. Louis. The media handling of this report also involved a lot of ensuring the reading public that this man's paternity would be confirmed before he could take the child. Someone interviewed rose the concern that something may have happened to the mother. Still, commenters used this as an opportunity to continue berating this "terrible" mother for leaving her child alone.
Later, the woman's family came forward and said that she was missing, and they were worried.
Four days after the initial story, the news came that the mother, Ebony Jackson, was found dead in the trunk of a car. The story covering that news includes paragraphs about the woman's past crimes (some theft charges), and stated it as "Jackson had been arrested at least three times since 2005."
Finally, the comments are full of sympathy and concern for how this case is being handled. People are pointing out that her past thefts don't have any place in an article about her body being found in the back of a car. I agree. In fact, the whole article reads like the media is going out of its way to malign this woman and her family. Why would you mention that she's been arrested "at least" three times unless you were trying to imply that she's probably been arrested more? And why would you mention that at all unless you're trying to imply that having some arrests in your history for theft makes it more likely that you will end up dead in the trunk of a car and ignored for days on end while the public berates you for your terrible parenting decisions.
I can't help but think about how different this story would have been reported if the circumstances had been different, if that had been a white child found in the middle of an affluent mall, for instance. I wonder if people would have been so quick to assume that this baby was "abandoned" and in need of a better "forever home," assuming that wherever he had been before had been inadequate, despite the fact that he was found healthy and happy.
If my child is ever found alone, I hope that people will assume that I am looking for her and assume that if they cannot find me, it is because something has happened to me.
I also think the way that the media keeps focusing on questioning the paternity of the man who claims to be the father is troublesome. I certainly understand why they need to make sure they are giving the baby over to the right person, but the number of times it's been mentioned in print is strange to me, especially when they were quick to identify the missing woman as his mother without any such DNA proof. Finally, the man left town without his son, waiting on DNA tests. I can imagine a much softer, kinder narrative crafted around the bereaved father who comes to reclaim his son in other circumstances.
And the way that the media handles all of these things -- the way they describe the parents, what information they give, what they choose to report -- all of that shapes viewers' perceptions, viewers who then take to the comments to chastise a young, dead, almost-certainly murdered woman for being a "terrible" mother.
Balancing Jane: PhD student. Educator. Mother. Wife. Feminist. A look at the intersections.