Amanda Knox has, with her second “guilty” verdict for the murder of Meredith Kercher, re-entered our media landscape. There is nothing inherently wrong with some coverage of the Knox case, but the level of exposure afforded the story since it first broke in late 2007/early 2008 has undoubtedly been magnified by a heady mixture of sex, drugs, violence and a lead character with an image and nickname many editors seem unable to resist. The murder of Kercher is tragic, and it appears that the Knox conviction is highly suspect. Yet, as with Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber, the volume of coverage afforded vacuous, salacious and/or sexed-up stories should lead us to consider what would happen – at the very least politically – if equivalent levels of journalistic time and energy were devoted to other issues.
Taking the start of the Knox case as the point of departure, here are eight stories from 2008 on which could have benefited from some Knoxesque coverage levels in the United States (and, for some, in the UK):
Iraq: Since 2008, over 37,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq. That’s just over twelve 9/11 attacks, or the equivalent of 370,000 civilians dying in the US (Iraq’s population is 10 times smaller of that of the US). In other words, like wiping out a city the size of Tampa, Florida. Since the bulk of the US media were more than willing to cheerlead a war based on a blatant falsehood, a recalibration of the coverage of the aftermath of this debacle is perhaps in order.
Global warming/climate change: The US remains the home of more political climate change sceptics than any other country in the so-called “developed world”. Despite the near-unanimous position of scientists around the world, US politicians continue to display mind-boggling scientific ignorance (wilful or otherwise). Not surprising, in retrospect, from a country where 50 percent of Republicans believe that humans have existed in their present form since the dawn of time (which would be about 7,000 years ago), and politicians claim with seriousness that women’s bodies are able to miraculously prevent pregnancy in cases of rape.
Death Penalty: Between January 1, 2008 and February 2, 2014, there have been 266 executions in the US. In 2012, China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the US were the top 5 global executioners. Disturbingly, earlier studies have shown that US prosecutors were twice as likely to request the death penalty for a black defendant who is charged with killing a non-black victim versus a black victim; and, white defendants were twice as likely as non-white to be offered a plea agreement to reduce their sentence from execution to life imprisonment. The death penalty gets coverage, but far too many of the “What-did-he-have-for-his-last-meal?” variety.
Sexual assault: At an average of 240,000 per year, according to a study by the US Department of Justice, there have been 1.5 million rapes and sexual assaults in the US since the start of 2008. Those are big numbers. However, this study has been challenged by a study administered by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in which it is suggested that the correct number of rapes and attempted rapes alone may be an astounding 1.27 million over 2013. If this is taken as an average per year, then that would be 7 million rapes since 2008. If the vast majority of victims of these assaults were men and not women, would we perhaps see more coverage? That’s a rhetorical question.
Guantanamo: Many inmates, in violation of the US Constitution, remain incarcerated without charge, denied of their basic right of habeas corpus. A lengthy hunger-strike in 2013 to protest this legal limbo was afforded a low level of media coverage. Guantanamo is a national and legal disgrace.
Everyday gun deaths: Since the start of 2008 there have been just short of 200,000 gun-related deaths in the US. While tragic mass shootings such as Columbine and Sandy Hook generate the headlines, the fact remains that gun-related deaths in general, and homicides using firearms in particular, have become a banal part of everyday life in the US. To get some sense of the relentless and often invisible flow of gun violence in the US, follow @GunDeaths on Twitter. It’s sobering.
Chelsea Manning: The person who provided the material for thousands of newspaper articles was arrested in 2010, placed in solitary confinement and subsequently sentenced to 35 years in prison. Coverage of Manning before and during her trial by the US news media was abysmal: a particularly damning indictment of journalism given the importance of the case for the future of whistle-blowing and, hence, freedom of the press.
Military spending: In 2011, of the 14 leading countries in the world when it came to spending on national defence, the US was, of course, first with an offensive $711bn budget. Even more offensive? The fact that the 13 countries underneath the US spent $695bn on national defence…combined. And, this US budget does not include the estimated $6tn (that’s $6,000,000,000,000) the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will likely wind up costing the US taxpayers. And Manning is the one who gets 35 years in prison.
Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.