Monday, March 31, 2008

Coverage of two student deaths raises questions

The Duke Chronicle ran an interesting story last week about differences in news coverage surrounding the deaths of two college students in the Durham-Chapel Hill area in recent months.

Ted Vaden, the public editor of The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C. (my former newspaper) followed up with a column yesterday.

The killing of Eve Carson, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill student body president, shocked the community. Student and community newspapers ran front-page stories of the crime and national network and cable television covered it. Vigils held in her honor attracted thousands. North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley offered a reward of as much as $10,000 and the UNC Board of Trustees offered $25,000 for any leads in the Carson case.

By contrast, coverage of the slaying of Duke graduate student Abhijit Mahato, shot and killed Jan. 18 in his home, was a quiet affair. No rewards were offered in connection with the death of Mahato, an international student from India. A vigil attracted 100 people, according to news accounts.

Vaden's column notes that the killing of another student--Denita Smith, a 25-year-old black graduate student at N.C. Central University who was killed in January 2007--also received relatively little news coverage.

Vaden contends that several important differences in the cases--prominence of the individuals, details of the crime, availability of information from police and other authorities--"explained, if not justified, the varying news coverage."

Certainly, Carson's prominence as an elected official on campus thrust her into a somewhat different news category than Smith and Mahato. But the discrepancies in coverage raise troubling questions all journalists should think about.

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