How the Media Treat Murder


Gerry Broome / AP

Diana Nicholson, right, the mother of Taraha Shenice Nicholson is comforted during a news conference at the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s office in Tarboro, N.C.

How the Media Treat Murder

Why isn’t the story of several missing women in North Carolina getting attention?

By Krista Gesaman | Newsweek Web Exclusive

Ten women have been found slain or have been declared missing in Rocky Mount, N.C., in recent years. But the rest of the country hasn’t heard about a possible serial killer stalking the young women in this Southern town of 60,000. The latest victim, Elizabeth Jane Smallwood, was identified on Oct. 12. Why have the Rocky Mount homicides been largely ignored?

"When you think about the famous missing-person cases over the last few years it’s Chandra Levy, Natalee Holloway, and Laci Peterson," notes Sam Sommers, associate professor of psychology at Tufts University. All these women had a few things in common—they were white, educated, and came from middle-class families. The victims in Rocky Mount—which residents describe as a "typical Southern town," and is about 40 percent white and more than 50 percent black—were different. They were all African-American, many were poor, and some had criminal histories including drug abuse and prostitution.

"If it was someone of a different race, things would have been dealt with the first time around; it wouldn’t have taken the fifth or sixth person to be murdered," says Andre Knight, a city-council member and president of the local NAACP chapter. "All these women knew each other and lived in the same neighborhood; this is the sign of a potential serial killer. When it didn’t get the kind of attention it needed, it made the African-American community frustrated."

Police have not officially linked all the murders and disappearances, but community members claim the similarities among the women, their lifestyles, and the location of their bodies make a connection all too obvious. "If you find two bodies in the same location, this could be the work of the same person or people," says Rocky Mount Police Chief John Manley, who would not comment on a connection, but implied the possibility.

Rumors are running rampant around the town about the identity of the serial killer. There is not much physical evidence, leading some to speculate it’s a former law-enforcement officer or someone in the military. Others have deduced that the killer is targeting specific women as a form of revenge for contracting HIV from a prostitute. Along with Smallwood, the murders of Taraha Nicholson, 28, Jarniece Hargrove, 31, Ernestine Battle, 50, Jackie Nikelia Thorpe, 35, Melody Wiggins, 29, and Denise Williams, 21, remain unsolved. Authorities are also searching for Yolanda Lancaster, 37, Joyce Renee Durham, 46, and Christine Boone, 43.

One man is in custody for the murder of Nicholson, who was the fourth victim, discovered back in 2005. This past September, police charged Antwan Maurice Pittman, 31, with her murder. He is accused of strangling Nicholson and dumping her partially clothed body in the woods. So far, authorities have not linked Pittman to the other murders. "There’s a lot of mixed sentiments about Pittman," says Knight, referring to community speculation about whether police have charged the right man.

"In this Information Age, cases get solved through sheer publicity, whether it’s an Amber Alert or America’s Most Wanted, anyone could have a tip or be a potential source of information," Sommers says.

But the national media did show some interest in the story after it was revealed that five women were murdered in or around the town. "Nancy Grace called and wanted to have some of us on her show, but before it aired there was a white woman from Georgia that went missing. The Nancy Grace show was canceled," Knight says. HLN network, which broadcasts Nancy Grace, confirmed that Knight was booked for the show, which was ultimately canceled to profile the disappearance of Kristi Cornwell, a white woman from Blairsville, Ga., who went missing during an evening walk. Representatives from Nancy Grace told NEWSWEEK, "The booking was changed due to news that was breaking that day," and emphasized the change had nothing to do with the race of the victim. On Aug. 12, Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees covered the story.

That bit of media exposure brought new resources to the investigation. Originally, only a small amount of reward money was collected for information about the case. After the story aired on CNN , New Jersey philanthropist Peter Pinto, of the Kefalas-Pinto Foundation, donated $10,000 from a personal trust. In late September, the city donated an additional $5,000, which was matched by a $5,000 county donation, bringing the amount of reward money to $20,000. If there were no media coverage, there might have been no reward. The money isn’t just going to help with the investigation, it’s helping the families of the victims, specifically their children.

How the Media Treat Murder | Newsweek National News |

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