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2 Tragic Cases Show Marked Contrasts

Crime: Gender plays a role in media coverage when a parent is accused of killing children.

April 15, 2002|MANUEL GAMIZ JR. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Unlike Andrea Yates, the Houston mother convicted of drowning her five children, Adair Garcia of Pico Rivera hardly stirred a ripple in the national news when he was accused of killing five of his children.

No network TV trucks lined up outside the courthouse March 19 as he pleaded not guilty to killing the children by lighting a barbecue grill in his living room. No news conferences. Only a handful of local journalists showed up.

Some wonder whether a double standard was at work.

"As a city leader, I am happy that the Garcia case did not turn into a major media circus," said Pico Rivera Mayor Greg Salcido. But "it kind of makes you feel like five lives in Pico Rivera do not mean as much as five lives in Houston."

The Yates case was chronicled in more than 1,150 published articles nationally in the first four weeks after police discovered the children, according to a database of newspapers, magazines, scientific journals and legal documents. The case of Garcia, who is scheduled to be arraigned today, resulted in 77 over a similar period.

Why the disparity? Many elements played a role, among them gender and the way the children died. The Yates case was more newsworthy, experts say, in part because it was more surprising.

"A father going nuts is less abnormal than a mother going nuts and doing something heinous to her children," said Jim Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in Florida. "In our culture, the female parent is emblematic of nurturing."

The Yates case, media experts say, fascinated the media and the public for a variety of reasons.

Bryce Nelson, a journalism professor at USC's Annenberg School of Communication, said Yates' mental condition contributed to the story's dramatic appeal.

Yates, 36, faced a type of mental anguish rarely talked about by the news media, Nelson said. She had been on medication for postpartum depression and murdered her five children--ages 6 months to 7 years--by drowning them in the family bathtub.

"Women identified with what she was going through," said Nelson. "Some felt sympathy for her, but I do not think that anyone could have imagined depression leading to what she did."

The fact that Yates' husband continued to support her also drove the story, Nelson said. "How could anyone have all their children killed and still stick with their wife?" Nelson said. "In a grotesque kind of way, this kind of stuff fascinates people."

Garcia also faced mental anguish, according to authorities, but of a more common type. Garcia was depressed, police allege, over his failing marriage. His wife had been gone for a week when, on Feb. 20, Garcia tucked his children into bed, investigators said, lighted a barbecue grill and went to sleep as the house filled with poisonous carbon monoxide.

Brenda, 10; Jonathan, 7; and Anthony, 2, were dead when rescue workers arrived the next morning. Cecilia, 4, died later that day, and Vanessa, 6, the next day. Only 9-year-old Kassandra survived.

The deaths did not create the same mental images as those of the Yates children, who died struggling and gasping for air as their mother held them underwater, a doctor testified at her trial. Yates had to chase the oldest, 7-year-old Noah, throughout the house. When she finally caught him, he cried and apologized to his mother, thinking he must have done something wrong. He was found face down in the bottom of the bathtub.

The surviving family members also played a role in how the story was portrayed. The Garcia family was reluctant to speak to the media, mainly to protect their surviving daughter, investigators said. Russell Yates, by contrast, held a news conference the day after his children were killed and frequently granted interviews.

Russell Yates even established a "Yates Kids Home Page," to "honor the memory of our children, Noah, John, Paul, Luke and Mary, who died tragically on June 20, 2001. I'd like this to be a place that anyone can go to 'visit' the children."

Yates also allowed media coverage of the funeral and memorial service. The Garcia family, with the help of the sheriff's station in Pico Rivera, held a private burial at Rose Hills Memorial Cemetery. One TV cameraman tried to sneak in, but he was shooed away by deputies.

Even before the killings, the Garcias appeared to be a private family, and their neighbors on Washington Boulevard had very little to say about the family, only that they appeared happy when they were out in public.

Some observers of the Yates and Garcia cases see them as an example of sexist bias. Among them is Susanna Cornett, operator of Cut on the Bias, a Web site that specializes in pointing out bias and spins in media and crime.

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