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Co-conspirator: The Media and Child Killers

When the killers are kids, a media that treats it more like a tragedy than a crime may be better for all, a new book argues.
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The response to two high-profile European child murders may provide a way to measure how American media and criminal and political institutions deal with similar crimes.

In his new book When Children Kill Children: Penal Populism and Political Culture, David A. Green, an assistant professor of sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, compares the ways in which public opinion, the legal system and the media handled notorious child murders in Britain and Norway.

In Britain, the 1993 kidnapping, torture and murder of 2-year-old James Bulger by two 10-year-olds created a tabloid frenzy for years, a way for politicians, the public and the press to vent about was alleged to be the country’s moral decline. In lockstep with this, the accused murderers were given no psychiatric treatment, tried in an adult court and given long prison terms (they have subsequently been released and are living under assumed names).

But in Norway, the 1994 murder of 5-year-old Silje Raedergard by three 6-year-old playmates was treated entirely differently. The local papers dealt with the case as a tragedy for all parties involved, and in contrast with Britain, where outraged citizens were cited often, many of the people quoted about the case were experts in the fields of psychology and child welfare. And instead of entering the criminal justice system, the boys were immediately placed back into kindergarten, where they were monitored by teachers and psychologists — a move even the dead child’s parents agreed with.

Green says the reasons for these wildly varying responses have a lot to do with the political and press cultures of each country. Norway is a homogeneous land with a multiplicity of political parties, where consensus is valued, citizens believe in the strength of their institutions and the press is relatively subdued. Britain has two dominant parties constantly battling each other; several nationally distributed papers fighting for supremacy in a highly competitive marketplace that hype high-profile crime stories to raise their circulations; and citizens have less confidence in their leaders and institutions.

“The more sober, less frenetic Norwegian response” to the 1994 case, Green told, “on the part of both its media and its politicians, should indicate to us that other ways of dealing with high-profile crimes are possible.”

Green’s book suggests that the U.S., with its two major parties and increasing lack of faith in political leadership, coupled with the rise of cable and Internet media all competing for stories, means this country falls into the British mold. He has, in fact, done some preliminary research on a 1994 Chicago case in which two boys, an 11- and a 10-year-old, dropped a 5-year-old to his death from a 14-story window.

“There was a great deal of public, media and political attention focused on the case,” Green said, “and it was linked with a string of particularly brutal juvenile murders in the Chicago area. Some commentators invoked it as evidence of a rising tide of ‘juvenile predators,’ and it was viewed like the (British) case as a sign or symptom of a deeper problem.”

In fact, the boys were sentenced to a minimum of five years in prison (the law said they could conceivably be held until they were 21) and were eventually incarcerated in a modern juvenile penal facility under a new law that allowed the jailing of children as young as 10.

All three cases also tend to confirm, Green said, that there is a real difference in media coverage and subsequent punishment depending on whether the killer and the victim are viewed as “good” or “bad” kids.

“There is some talk in the media and crime literature about ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ victims of crime,” he said. “Perhaps there is some social function served when nice kids kill that is not served when bad kids do. If we can identify and empathize with the nice killer, we’re less likely to support harsh treatment. Harsh treatment usually requires some degree of ‘othering’ and a denial of shared experience with the offender. It wouldn’t surprise me if observers were more likely to accept a killing was accidental if committed by a nice kid than if it were committed by a bad kid.”

Ultimately, however, Green’s research is not so much about culpability but about the ways in which the public views certain crimes and whether or not politicians and the press are willing to exploit them. His book is practically an impassioned brief for the sober, almost clinical way in which Norway dealt with the Raedergard murder — the willingness of institutions and the public alike to view it as a social tragedy, not a crime.

“The point I stress in the book,” Green said, “(is) about how we need to improve the quality and diversity of discourses to which we’re exposed in the press.  When the political will to make political hay in the wake of a high-profile case is strong, combined with sensationalistic media willing to play along, things can escalate pretty quickly — not just in terms of public concern but in policy response to deal with that apparent rise in concern.”

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