More Messages: Ghoulish Calculus

Yesterday's despicable school assault in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was considerably more deadly than the one that took place at Platte Canyon High School near Bailey last week. The Pennsylvania slayer, Charles Carl Roberts IV (pictured here -- and no relation, thankfully), shot ten girls execution-style before committing suicide; at this writing, five of Roberts' victims have died, and all the others are listed in either "critical" or "grave" condition. In contrast, Duane Morrison, the Platte Canyon killer, reportedly molested six girls before murdering one, sixteen-year-old Emily Keyes, and then taking his own life. Thus far, however, the Pennsylvania incident has received less coverage from the national media than did the event in Bailey.

On the surface, this seems inexplicable. In addition to the higher body count, the tragedy in Lancaster County took place in an Amish community whose residents have rejected typical American society in part to protect themselves from the very ills Roberts represented. The irony is impossible for even the densest TV types to miss. Moreover, the location is only a few hours from New York City and Washington, D.C., where most major news operations are based, making it easy for high-profile personnel to be on the scene quickly. Yet while all the major cable channels and network newscasts gave significant play to the story last night, Roberts' abominable act hardly dominated airtime. Similar or greater weight was given to the brewing scandal involving disgraced Florida Representative Mark Foley and the revelations contained in Bob Woodward's latest book, State of Denial. This morning, North Korea's announcement of an impending nuclear test is also getting a lot of attention.

Why isn't more of the spotlight on Lancaster County? The ghoulish calculus that broadcast managers practice on a daily basis offers the likeliest answers. The Platte Canyon siege provided hours of striking helicopter footage that gained in resonance in the minds of decision-makers because of the school's proximity to Columbine, which remains the standard by which all of these horrors are measured. There were chopper shots in Pennsylvania, too, but not as many, since everything was essentially over before the aircraft arrived on the scene. In addition, network suits may feel that the viewing public in general will have a difficult time relating to the Amish victims, whose otherness makes them one of Lancaster County's biggest tourist attractions. Though execs denied it at the time, they probably provided less coverage of a bloody 2005 school shooting that left a total of nine dead because it took place on Minnesota's Red Lake Indian Reservation and involved Native Americans. Finally, many of the quotes provided by Amish community members have cast blame on the outside world, which isn't good for business.

That such factors may come into play when determining coverage isn't as disturbing as the awful situations in Bailey and Lancaster County. Still, the media has a responsibility to treat all human lives equally, even when certain humans don't conduct their lives in the same way that most of us do. -- Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts