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THE DEATH OF SAMANTHA RUNNION

Some Murdered Kids Get More Attention

News analysis: Race and class may play role, but some insist Samantha's story merits coverage as parent's 'worst nightmare.'

July 20, 2002|REED JOHNSON and ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

More than anything, some journalism and missing-child experts say, it was the brutal and haunting details of Samantha Runnion's abduction and killing that made her case an overnight media sensation.

There was the brazen nature of the kidnapping, in broad daylight on a quiet Orange County street. Then the discovery of the 5-year-old girl's body by a hiker in the Cleveland National Forest, his anguish captured on a 911 tape and played over and over on television. The sheriff issued an unusual warning that a child killer was on the loose and could strike again soon. And finally, Samantha's killer, police said, had sexually assaulted and asphyxiated the girl, then tauntingly left her displayed in the open as a "calling card." Even her kicking and screaming hadn't been enough to deter her assailant. Parents across the country wondered helplessly: What more can we do to protect our children?

"I hate this expression on television," said Jerry Nachman, an MSNBC host, but "you have every parent's worst nightmare. This is not a kid who didn't understand the rules, [but] one who is sitting on the wall outside her house with a playmate and gets snatched by a guy, dragged away from her home kicking and screaming, is sexually abused and suffocated to death. How much of a reach is it to call that a story?"

But the prominent coverage given Samantha's case contrasts sharply with all but a handful of other recent incidents of missing and murdered children across the country. On Friday, as detectives announced the arrest of 27-year-old Alejandro Avila in connection with the case, some media professionals and other observers said that factors such as ethnicity and economic class also may explain why Samantha's story led national newscasts and captured front-page headlines across the country, while many other recent cases of missing and/or murdered children have not.

"We tend to, in the media, on the national level, place more weight with children who are white, children who come from economic circumstances that are middle or upper level, and we tend to dismiss

(Samantha Runnion fits the profile only partially. The child of a single mother, Erin Runnion, she was from a working-class neighborhood in Stanton.)

Since the start of this year, at least five abducted children have garnered varying degrees of national media attention. Besides Samantha, they include Danielle van Dam, snatched from her bedroom in her parents' San Diego home in February (David Westerfield, a neighbor, is on trial for her murder); Alexis Patterson, 7, who disappeared in May after leaving for school in central-city Milwaukee; Elizabeth Smart, 14, who is feared to have been kidnapped at gunpoint from her family's Salt Lake City home June 5; and Jahi Turner, 2, who disappeared in San Diego in April.

Of the five, Danielle, Elizabeth and Samantha were front-page news across the country, and their cases have been given prominent play in national TV newscasts. It's a mark of the impact of media saturation that even many media executives rattle off the names of Danielle, Samantha and Elizabeth, all of whom were white, and then tack on, "and the girl from Milwaukee"--meaning Patterson, who is African American, as is Turner. Neither case got immediate widespread national attention, which led some to conclude that race and class were at work when news executives were making their coverage decisions.

Nachman disputes that, saying a number of factors in the Patterson case, including confusion about custody, made it a murkier story. "It's different circumstances," he said. But other executives say race and class issues are involved in deciding which cases the media will latch onto out of the several hundred nonfamily-member child kidnappings per year.

"It pains me, as a black man, a black journalist and as a journalist," said Will Sutton, deputy managing editor of the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and former president of the National Assn. of Black Journalists. "Because for me it's a matter of accuracy, balance and fairness as well as completeness."

Sutton said that the News & Observer ran its coverage of the Runnion story inside its A section, as it has done with stories about other recent child victims. "We tend not to put crime stories on the front page and play them up," he said.

Besides journalists, some missing-child experts expressed concern about disproportionate national reporting on stories like Samantha's. "We wish that all the cases had equal coverage," said Nancy McBride, executive director of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children/Florida in South Palm Beach.

At the same time, she said that Samantha's case was unusually potent psychologically, in part because of the audacity of her attacker. "I think we need more resources devoted to prevention, because even though the numbers are staying somewhat stable, the attempts are more brazen," she said. "And that's very frightening."

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