Race, Class, and the News
Yale student's murder gets big press; not so for a black youth's killing
NEW HAVEN, CONN. — IN the early morning hours of Sunday, Feb. 10, a young black man named Joseph Ford died after being shot in the chest. A high school student known for dancing and writing poetry, he lived in a lower-class New Haven neighborhood where violence and drug dealing aren't uncommon. He was killed near his home, apparently by assailants who thought he was involved with a drug dealer from the neighborhood, says New Haven police chief Nicholas Pastore and Paul Ford, Joseph's older brother. Both agree that Joseph wasn't involved in dealing.
A week later, in the early morning hours of Sunday, Feb. 17, a young white man named Christian Prince died. He too had been shot in the chest. A Yale University sophomore who studied Latin American affairs and played lacrosse, he came from an upper-class family that has sent at least four generations to Yale. He was killed on a side street near the Yale campus after what police think was a botched hold-up attempt.
How the press covered these two deaths again calls into question the motivations behind editorial decisions regarding crime victims and their race and status. Does the press consider the death of a white, upper-class youth more important than the death of a minority youth from a low-income neighborhood?
The press - in New Haven and elsewhere - quickly decided that the Prince killing deserved aggressive coverage. The New Haven Register, the daily newspaper that serves this city of 130,000, ran twelve stories on the Prince murder in the eight days following the crime. Ten reporters produced 159 column inches of news copy.
The reporting of Joseph Ford's murder was handled differently. The Register ran three stories on the Ford killing in the succeeding two weeks - a total of 50 column inches of copy by three writers.
But the most troublesome thing to some black New Haven residents isn't the amount of attention given Prince, it's the tone of the coverage.
Reports about lower-class murder victims do not seem to convey the sense that a person of great potential has been stolen from society, says Lisa Sullivan, a Yale graduate student who works with the NAACP youth council in New Haven. ``We live in a society that devalues the lives of poor people and it's reflected in the media,'' she says.
The coverage of Christian Prince's murder suggests that the violent death of an upper-class white person remains an automatic big story. After a more ``routine'' killing, like Joseph Ford's, it takes a special effort to create the sense of public tragedy that can result in actions to prevent crime.
Over the past five weeks, Paul Ford has succeeded in making his brother's death the starting point for efforts to halt violence against youths in New Haven. He adds, however, that his first reaction to his brother's killing wasn't so constructive: He considered killing the person he believed responsible for Joseph's death.
Pattern of news coverage
The story of Joseph Ford's killing ran at the top the Register's front page the morning after it happened, but the article didn't catch the eye as much as the item below it: a color photo of a dead whale found in a nearby waterway. The next day a profile of Joseph Ford appeared at the bottom of page one, along with photos of both brothers. In those two days, the Register ran 25 inches of copy on Joseph Ford, filed by three reporters.
This pattern of coverage - a ``day one'' news story on the crime, followed by a ``day two'' profile of the victim - is the paper's routine approach to murders, according to Michael Foley, a Register reporter who covers crime.
The Prince shooting was the kind of story that demanded ``every available body,'' says Mr. Foley. The Monday following Prince's death the Register ran a banner headline across page one: ``Student's killing jolts Yale,'' along with color photos of the crime scene and of his roommate packing Prince's belongings. Three-fifths of the page was devoted to two stories on Prince, and a third, smaller story about the last time a Yale student was killed on campus, in 1974, ran on an inside page.
The next day the paper ran four stories on the Prince killing, including a page one story on the progress of the police investigation. In the first two days after the shooting, the Register published 101 inches of copy on Prince, filed by eight reporters.
``When a Yale student gets killed,'' says David Butler, the Register's editor, ``the first one in  years, in a neighborhood where there hasn't been much crime, it's something of a larger story than if a killing happens somewhere else.''
The scene of Prince's death is not far from the residence of Yale president Benno C. Schmidt, Jr. It's not an area known for violent crime, although property crime is a part of campus life. As one local observer puts it, walking off the campus in any direction lands you in the seventh-poorest city in the country.
``It's easy and simplistic to look at coverage of one person and compare it to another person,'' cautions Mr. Butler, but the real problems are ``much more complicated than that.'' He says his paper has given the situation of lower-class youths in New Haven adequate coverage, through individual stories on events like murders and through broader efforts addressing race relations and the local economy.
The New York Times covered the Prince killing by running an Associated Press story in its Metropolitan section, and a follow-up story on security concerns at Yale. The Times didn't report the Ford killing, according to a computer search of the paper on the Nexis database.
Metropolitan editor Gerald Boyd, who must decide which of many crimes that occur in the New York area each day the Times will cover, won't go into detail on why the paper picked up Prince. ``We find something about the story that is interesting and compelling or what have you and based on that we do a story.'' The Times ran three paragraphs on one other New Haven murder since Jan. 1 - the shooting of a 14-year-old black boy.
At The Hartford Courant, Connecticut's largest newspaper, the Prince killing was front page news; the Joseph Ford murder merited four paragraphs inside the paper. Paul Stern, the paper's Sunday state news editor, says he asked his superiors, ``How do we rationalize getting all fired up on the killing of a Yale student when we haven't gotten equally fired up on the killing of a 15-year-old [Ford] a week before?''
Mr. Stern says that because a Yale student hadn't been killed in 16 years, and because some readers in Hartford send their children to Yale, the paper's editors chose to play up the Prince story. Unlike Yale, he adds, ``the streets of New Haven are not a high profile institution in Hartford.''
Paul Ford's efforts
Soon after his brother's death, Paul Ford chose not to respond with violence. ``My anger has to come out in a different way,'' he says in an interview at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant near both his mother's house and the building where Joseph was killed.
Ford, a stocky 22-year-old with a fade haircut and a thin mustache, has instead formed a foundation, named after his brother, to provide recreational and job-training opportunities for youths in New Haven. He's met with the mayor, the police chief, and members of the board of aldermen, and he's getting free legal help from a large New Haven law firm.
``Kids today have two choices,'' he says. ``Jail or a coffin, it's one of the two.'' He wants to work with boys, as young as twelve or thirteen, in an effort to ``beat a drug dealer to the punch.''
Ford isn't the first person to think of providing recreational and job-training opportunities for young people, but he conveys determination and talks in terms of concrete projects, rather than abstract goals. He has ``the ability to speak to his peers and mobilize them,'' says Michael Morand, a New Haven alderman who is working with Ford. He says Ford has drawn renewed attention to the human costs of drug-related crime, adding, ``There's a certain amazement and wonder and joy to see a young man stand u p and do what Paul's doing.''
On the advice of Register reporter Foley, Ford says, he held a rally to announce the foundation that drew television coverage. (The Register didn't cover the rally itself because it pulled the reporter assigned to the rally to work on the Christian Prince story; Foley has written about Ford's efforts.)
Nicholas Pastore, New Haven's police chief, says Ford's work is good because it increases ``sensitivity [to] life in the inner city.'' Many people in New Haven are ``living in despair,'' he says, noting the city's drug problems, high infant mortality, and incidence of AIDS. For the most part, he says with morbid irony, ``the `right' people have been dying'' - people whose deaths don't generate immediate public, press, and political concern. Christian Prince, he acknowledges, is clearly one of the ``wrong'' people. But Chief Pastore argues that strong reaction to the Prince killing is partly because the victim was ``identified as living in a world of innocence.'' Other, similarly innocent victims engage press and public attention regardless of class, race, and social station, the chief says.
Ford himself doesn't criticize the press reaction to the Prince murder. ``Publicity is not the main issue when you're still hurting,'' he says. Roger Vann, who runs the Sceptre Institute for the Mentorship of Boys of African Ancestry in New Haven, says ``the people I work with are so used to violence that they're really not affected by the portrayal.''
But Mr. Vann is concerned about the ``tenor'' of press coverage. The Register's page one headlines on the Prince killing - ``Student's killing jolts Yale, and, `He had everything going for him''' - tell the reader that a promising life has been lost. The page one headline over the Joseph Ford story, ``Teen slain in house with deadly past,'' tells something much different.
The keeping-the-tally convention used by reporters is part of the tenor problem, adds Vann. The lead paragraph in the Register's story on Joseph Ford - ``The city sustained its fourth slaying in eight days.... '' - immediately places the victim in statistical context, as though that were the most important facet of his death.
In the Prince case, the statistical information was dropped to the fourth paragraph, after information about the circumstances of the murder, the shock of the Yale community, and the police theory about a botched holdup attempt. This, says Vann, ``is evidence of the existence of institutional racism'' in the media. He adds that he is most concerned ``when members of the African-American community ingest and incorporate'' stereotypes reinforced by the media that society should write off some troubled you ths.
Vann also observes that more coverage of violence isn't as important as adequate coverage of the issues that he says underlie violence: poverty, educational opportunities, ``even [topics] as basic as concepts of `man' and `woman' and how you act out ... your manhood.''
Chief Pastore agrees that the issues need more coverage, but says that after a murder, ``the more involvement, the more protest, the more concern there is ... raises the level of response from the system.'' And Pastore is quick to say that the system, meaning social institutions like the police and government, suffers from a ``prejudice that discounts a significant number of people because of ethnicity or color.'' He says social problems in cities would get far more attention if young white men were dyi ng frequently.
Placing stories in context
Two of the editors interviewed for this article say that the rarity of murder at Yale was a reason to boost the coverage of Prince's death. But a conversation with Douglas Rae, New Haven's chief administrative officer who is on leave from Yale, suggests that the frequency of murders like Ford's may be a bigger story.
Ask him to describe Joseph Ford's peer group, and he'll say that Ford was one of many youths in New Haven, aged 14 to 26, who live in single-parent households surviving on low or public incomes where no one is intervening to improve opportunities for the youth's education and employment. Most, but not all, of these youths are minorities. They number somewhere between 5,000 to 6,000, says Mr. Rae.
Over the past 14 months at least half of the 38 murders in New Haven have killed young men like Joseph Ford. The Yale community, with just under 5,200 undergraduates, has lost two of its own in 16 years. In the community of Joseph Ford's peers, they've lost about 20 of their own in 14 months.