Murder Coverage Draws Concern
Woman's slaying raises questions about how print and broadcast media handle crime stories. NEWS MEDIA: BOSTON
THE news media's use of graphic photos and videotape from the scene of a brutal murder here has raised familiar questions about how the press covers such events. Charles Stuart and his pregnant wife, Carol, were shot last week by a robber in their car after leaving a Boston hospital. The couple had been attending an evening childbirth class. Mr. Stuart used his car phone to call a state police dispatcher and was able to get help. Mrs. Stuart died the next morning, but doctors delivered her baby surgically. Her husband and the baby remain hospitalized, but Stuart gave police a description of his attacker, setting off an intensive manhunt.
The day after the tragedy, the Boston Herald printed a front-page picture showing the wounded couple being treated by paramedics. The CBS Evening News showed similarly graphic film.
In addition, national news programs as well as Boston television and radio stations broadcast portions of a tape bearing the emotional conversation between Stuart and the police dispatcher. The Boston Globe, the Herald, the New York Times, and many other papers printed partial transcripts.
Many people in the Boston area have responded with outrage at the crime and the media coverage of it. The Boston Herald and several radio stations have been deluged with angry calls and letters protesting what some see as a sensationalistic invasion of the Stuarts' privacy and dignity.
Journalists here are deeply divided over how such events should be covered. ``When we decide to publish a picture like this, we know that it's not going to help sell newspapers,'' Herald editor Ken Chandler said in a Herald article. ``But this photo made a powerful statement about the level of violence in this city.''
``If I were editing the Herald, I would have been hard-pressed not to use that photo,'' says Jonathan Klarfeld, associate professor of journalism at Boston University. ``I would use it because maybe it will get people's attention that there is a real problem out there of crime and violence.'' He also defends radio stations that have been criticized for broadcasting the audio tape.
Mr. Klarfeld equates the picture with other controversial news photos that have had a pivotal effect on public opinion about an issue. He cites the now-famous photographs of a young Vietnamese girl who had been burned in a napalm attack, or of Robert Kennedy being treated in the kitchen of the Los Angeles hotel where he was shot. ``No one had any problem with that,'' Klarfeld says.
Others disagree. Kirk Scharfenberg, deputy managing editor of the Globe, says that while his paper didn't have a graphic photo such as the Herald printed, the Globe would not have used such a photo even if it had possessed one. ``It was too graphic, and an invasion of the lives of the Stuarts and the death of Mrs. Stuart,'' he says. ``While I understand the ... arguments that showing the true horror of the crime can galvanize public reaction, I think it was unnecessary. The story itself had all the elements needed to galvanize the public.''
WNEV-TV, the Boston CBS affiliate, refused to air the network's graphic film footage. ``I think there was a lack of sensitivity'' on the part of CBS in broadcasting the film, says Jim Thistle, WNEV news director.
Another part of the controversy: Has the crime received excessive coverage because the couple were white suburban professionals? Critics of the media, including some black leaders, point out that there have been almost 80 murders in Boston this year 170 shootings just since Sept. 1. Many have involved blacks; none has received as much attention as the Stuart case. The same charge was made of media attention given to the rape and beating of a young white woman jogger in New York's Central Park last spring.
Journalists respond that the Boston media gave similar heavy coverage to the 1988 killing of Tiffany Moore, an 11-year-old black girl who was shot while talking to friends. That case came to symbolize the gang-and-drugs atmosphere that was taking over sections of Boston's black neighborhoods. For editors, the common issue in both cases was the innocence of the victims. ``Tiffany Moore wasn't doing anything. Carol Stuart wasn't doing anything,'' Mr. Thistle says.
The Globe's Mr. Scharfenberg does not think there has been too much coverage of the Stuart case. He says the media have focused on the shootings because ``it's an emblematic crime that stands for what people feel about crime and safety in America today. The central element is the randomness of it, the feeling that people going about their normal business could be caught in a horrible crime.''
Journalists also point out that people living in predominantly white areas of Boston and its suburbs have had a tendency to ignore rising drug-related crime rates in black neighborhoods despite media reporting of the situation.
The Stuart case, they believe, may change that complacency.
``I don't think the media have downplayed the absolute slaughter that's going on,'' Thistle says. ``It's only a matter of time before this touches everyone living in Boston.''