Corporate Media Coverage Is More Generous to White Killers Than Black Victims

The Austin bomber has been described as "smart," "nerdy" and from a "godly family."

Mark Anthony Conditt, the Austin bomber
Photo Credit: Danene Conditt/Facebook

If security concerns for the residents of Austin, Texas, weren't enough, now some are wondering about the lopsided, ineffectual and hypocritical media coverage of the white Austin bomber who killed himself Wednesday.

According to law enforcement authorities, Mark Anthony Conditt was the serial bomber who claimed the lives of at least two people and injured four more by constructing, packaging and disseminating several “highly sophisticated” touch-sensitive bombs in March. His bombing spree killed two African Americans, while one of the injured victims is Latina. Yet a survey of the headlines would lead one to think Conditt was merely a "polite" and "introverted" neighbor who expressed harmless interest in improvised explosive devices.

The Associated Press sought the opinion of Conditt's uncle, who said the serial bomber was "smart" and "introverted.” The Washington Post explained that Conditt was apparently "frustrated by life." The local police department said Conditt’s 25-minute taped confession, in which he admits to creating the bombs, was “the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about the challenges in his personal life that led him to this point.” The New York Times ran a headline quoting an acquaintance of the bomber who said Conditt was a "nerdy" fellow hailing from a "tight-knit, godly family." ABC News' Austin network said Conditt was a health-conscious "introvert."

Media descriptions of Conditt echo those of white supremacist mass murderer Dylann Roof, who shot nine people to death inside a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Yet according to the Wall Street Journal, Roof was a "quiet" and "bright boy." James Holmes, who opened fire in a theater in Colorado, killing 24 people in 2012, was also a "quiet" man, according to ABC News. Similarly gentle and forgiving descriptors were applied to 17-year-old Austin Rollins, who killed a teenage girl and injured two other students in Maryland recently. According to the Associated Press, Rollins was a "lovesick teen."

Situating a story is critical. Explaining the possibly troubled backgrounds of criminals in order to understand their presumed motives is one thing. But the same softened and empathetic language is rarely afforded to people of color. Black victims of police brutality aren't given such leniency in media coverage or law enforcement investigations. In 2013, the Miami Herald ran a headline about Trayvon Martin, a black teen who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in 2012, with the words "Weed, Fights, and Guns: Trayvon Martin's Text Messages." CNN ran a similar headline.  The rapping history of another shooting victim, Michael Brown, was brought into question by the Los Angeles Times.

The subject of labeling a person a terrorist is already fraught with precarity and double standards. Soft-toothed media coverage of violent white men only exacerbates the situation. These double-standards have been discussed again and again and again. But as long as white men commit heinous acts of violence and still manage to garner the sympathy of media, people will bring it up, like it or not.

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Mehreen Kasana is a news writer. Previously, she worked as the front-page editor for the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @mehreenkasana.