Media coverage of crime is always divisive. Reporters have to respect victims and their grieving families while writing for a public that thrives on grisly details.
Police have unearthed 13 bodies in the mesa near the intersection of 118th Street and Dennis Chavez SW. When the number of remains was at 11, the Associated Press called it "Albuquerque's largest crime scene ever." When the 12th and 13th were uncovered (the last the unborn fetus of four-months-pregnant Michelle Gina Valdez), the discovery put Albuquerque in news around the world, all the way to Australia via the Sydney Morning Herald.
The family refused to grant interviews; Valdez' relatives were angry because the press hadn't cared or given them airtime when she went missing four years ago.
Joline Gutierrez Krueger's Monday, March 2, UpFront for the Albuquerque Journal recounts a conversation she had with the wife of a TV reporter. He failed to secure an interview with the family of 22-year-old Valdez. The family refused to grant interviews; Valdez' relatives were angry because the press hadn't cared or given them airtime when she went missing four years ago. The station's insensitivity went unnoticed until the reporter couldn’t get the interview. Its coverage was hindered by its callous decision.
Consider the headline the Journal ran two days prior on Saturday, Feb. 28: "Body Count: 13." Straightforward, yes, but lacking humanity. The article was more compassionate than its headline. Still, all Albuquerque outlets made a point of noting that two of the women who had been identified—Valdez and Victoria Chavez—struggled with drug addiction and prostitution.
The objective facts of the case shouldn’t diminish their humanity.
These women have already been burdened with an overwhelming legacy because of how their bodies were posthumously treated—unceremoniously dumped in the mesa and then brought before the public as spectacle. By noting their drug use and prostitution, the media saddles the women with the label of societal "less-thans"—Krueger's term and the reason the police were downplaying the case's importance. Still, denying their lifestyles ignores links between the victims that could lead to capturing whoever buried their bodies.
These were not just women entombed in the desert. They were not just prostitutes, either. They were neighbors, wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. The objective facts of the case shouldn’t diminish their humanity.
Krueger's commentary condemned APD's response. She was incensed—and rightly so. Her editorial was accompanied by a full page of pictures of the 12 women killed and a plea to look at their faces and remember. Yet suddenly the impact of her words was lessened; the intent was genuine but the pictures reduced the women in a different way. The photos were mugshot-like (some of them may have even been mugshots) and without context. The women were only grainy faces. The effort to humanize the women fell short. Inadvertently, they were still being judged because of their lifestyles.
Balance is difficult when life has been lost. Maybe accurate humanization in a news story is impossible. The West Mesa story is fraught with emotional impact, and the potential for glib, sensationalized coverage is high. Still, it's encouraging to see the press strive for evenhandedness—if we keep trying, we might achieve it.