Why we want to kill baby killers

Baby killer acquitted.

This could easily have been the headline to the coverage of a Florida mother accused – and acquitted – of killing her 2-year-old daughter this week.

The Casey Anthony murder trial has been a media darling this summer. Anthony, a 20-something “girl-next-door” mother did not report her child missing in 2008, later accused her father of killing the girl when her body was found, and may have stressed her father out so much he allegedly considered suicide. Yes, Wikipedia has it all.

Simply, even though she has been acquitted of murder, the public and the news has found her guilty. Her guilt, however, is for another conversation.

What’s interesting to me is why was this was such a big, national news story.

A slow summer news cycle?

Maybe. But not likely.

The reason is rooted in what the Anthony trial meant to us. I mean, infanticide – the murder of a newborn – or any killing of a child is a shock to a society, right?

Not quite.

It depends on who the children are.

Here is an interesting take on whose children are being killed from the former Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox. He wrote about the verdict and the attention it received:

It enrages me because so many residents of our region are (rightfully) venting about the death of a little girl in Central Florida while at the same time nearly 400 men, women, and – yes – children will be killed in Detroit this year.

Where is the outrage?

More than one person is murdered each day in Detroit. In New York City, they would march on Gracie Manor (the Mayor’s mansion) if a New Yorker was killed each day. All those “tough” cities of Hollywood movie lore – Chicago, Los Angeles, Philly, Newark – have the same lack of tolerance for senseless violence.

But Detroit? Where is the outrage?

Cox is speaking, of course, about the racial and economic issues that are inherent in the public’s perspective of crime, the inner city, and Detroit. At the same time, though, he is commenting about Anthony’s race (white) and her location (good, old Florida). Nothing bad happens there, really…

But there is another cultural answer to why Casey Anthony’s case made so much news, and it is one discussed by Barbara Barnett in a 2006 journal article from Journalism, “Medea in the media: Narrative and myth in newspaper coverage of women who kill their children.”

In this piece, Barnett discusses the outrage that journalists expressed in coverage of such mother who killed their children as Andrea Yates and Susan Smith.

Throughout her article, Barnett helps us understand why we get so upset about some baby killers and not others that I think are relevant here.

First, to some degree, we expect death in the cities. Children who die from crime, drugs, druggie parents, botched whatevers there are just symptoms of urban decline. Children who die by natural disaster are just victims of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods. And kids who are killed by being runover by credit-card-maxed parents who drive hulking SUVs were subject to an accident.

But the murder of our own children by ourselves — their own mothers — lead to a hot mess in society. Mothers are supposed to be “good mothers,” as scholar Jack Lule tells us. Mothers are caring. They place children over careers. Children are expected from a good marriage, a selfless mother.

So when we see that narrative stripped of its validity with mothers who have — or have been suspected to have — murdered their little ones, the women are written of as crazies, or “bad” mothers.

In this explanation, I am not condoning the murder of anyone — least of all children. Yet, the cultural explanation for how and why news media cover mothers who kill children as psychotic (more psychotic than a bank robber, a gang member, or a terrorist) is about using that coverage to isolate the causes of those murders — the stress of motherhood, the bodily damage that can come from pregnancy and birth.

More than anything, such mass coverage of mothers-as-killers perpetuates gender roles. Women should have children. They should care about them. They should not discuss the emotional, psychical, social, and economic effects of children. To do so would be, well, unmotherly.

So what do we do?

Barnett, in her piece, identifies some of her recommendations.

In order to help readers better under- stand the complexities of infanticide, journalists might have looked beyond official legal sources and considered the value of non-official sources, such as mothers themselves, who could speak to the joys and stresses of child care. In addition, journalists might consider whether feminist scholars could add to the understanding of infanticide by offering historical context about the crime.

She also writes that:

A larger issue raised by news accounts of maternal infanticide is how to help women who cannot or do not mother well and what role journalists might play in shaping this discourse.

And that

Journalists might look more closely at how the idealization of motherhood discourages women from asking for help – and discourages society from offering services to help them, assuming that maternal instinct will ‘right’ any troubled situation. Examining community responsibility in infanticide does not mean that women who kill their children should not be accountable for their harmful actions; they should. However, exploring infanticide as a social problem, not just an individual problem, adds another layer of inquiry to reporting, allowing journalists to present a more thorough and accurate account of infanticide.

Did we get this from the Casey Anthony trial?

It would be interesting to see this more complex coverage the next time we attach ourselves to a story of a mother killer.