Lookism and the Law

Do looks matter in TV news story selection?

Okay, wait. That's a no-brainer. Let's make that question: How much do looks matter in story selection? And does that effect the criminal justice system?

That's at the heart of Eric Deggans' post today down in St. Petersburg, detailing how two teachers who confessed to having sex with teenage students got different sentences, with the "beauteous Debra Lafave [getting] a lighter sentence than the less pin-up-ready Jaymee Lane Wallace."

Why did this happen? Deggans thinks it was the media, given the fact that the mother of the boy in the LaFave case didn't want a media circus surrounding her family, and therefore accepted house arrest without a trial.

Okay, sure. But why would there have been a media circus?

Because LaFave was very attractive, and drew a lot of attention due to her looks. And in all too many newsrooms, the philosophy about news is the same one from the playground. You know, the "Made you look!" strategy.

Disclosure: I was quoted in a Deggans piece on this topic about a year ago, waxing philosophic along the lines of

""Why is she the sex teacher?" Felling said. "When people report on male pedophiles, words are tossed around like 'predator' or 'mental illness.' In the stories about Lafave, I saw words like 'bombshell' and 'romp.'
That "Made you look" factor plays a big role in TV fixations, from young blonde cherubic children like Elizabeth Smart or JonBenet to the Natalee Holloway, Chandra Levy or Laci Petersen disappearances.

When you lump those stories all together, it's enough to make the biggest news naïf a cynic. Are the stories with the most news merit always Caucasian woman? (No, but they certainly don't draw a big enough morning show audience.)

In case you wonder about media priorities, let me tell you about a drowned woman – pregnant in her third trimester – who washed up in the Bay Area a few years ago.

Sound familiar?

It's the story of Evelyn Hernandez, right? Who were you thinking of?

I don't blame you. The media attention given to Laci Petersen was far and away more than that of Hernandez, a Salvadoran immigrant.

The media – being an industry trying to attract the most eyeballs/readers – will always try to find the most compelling stories that can be packaged to the biggest audience. (The biggest audience in the United States being the white audience.)

So being drawn to white, attractive faces isn't going to get phased out. But it's critical to realize that behind every crime drama or Missing/Hurt White Woman story, there are numerous similar stories of less photogenic victims.

I can deal with that reality uncomfortably but pragmatically. I just hope that the increased media attention doesn't automatically lead to higher priority on the part of law enforcements in a search. It's bad enough that it can reasonably be linked to differing judicial sentences, as Deggans argues.

Humans will always be drawn to the camera-friendly, but we have to make sure justice stays blind.