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Why you've heard of Caylee, but not Brisenia or Marchella

Casey Anthony, the mother of Caylee Anthony, reacts to being found not guilty on murder charges at the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando, Fla. on July 5, 2011
Casey Anthony, the mother of Caylee Anthony, reacts to being found not guilty on murder charges at the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando, Fla. on July 5, 2011
Pool photo/Getty Images News

The trial involving Casey Anthony, recently acquitted of murder charges in the 2008 death of her toddler daughter Caylee Anthony by a Florida jury, has made national headlines for months. The story has been a top draw on cable news shows, with CNN's Nancy Grace taping live from the center of the action in Orlando.

Yet similarly tragic criminal cases involving children - the horrific abuse and death of 4-year-old Marchella Pierce in New York, the murder of 9-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father in Arizona during a home invasion by border vigilantes - have received scant coverage in comparison.

The stories of these three children are equally sad, how they died equally gut-wrenching. One difference is that Caylee was white, Marchella was black, and Brisenia was Mexican American.

Does race and ethnicity factor into how these cases are reported? Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member with The Poynter Institute and one of the nation's leading experts on media ethics, addresses this and other questions about the coverage disparity and what can be done about it:

M-A: Why do you think these tragic cases involving white children get much more ink? Is there an “otherness” factor in the news decisions that are made, i.e. that perhaps because the family is of color, the audience may not be able to identify as well?

McBride: Some of it has to do with assumptions that we make in the media about what's "normal" and what's "compelling." One of the things driving the Casey Anthony saga is the window into a dysfunctional family. So if we're fascinated by this family, then we must think they are unusual. And race plays into that.

It's possible that the people making decisions in newsrooms have a default assumption about what's normal (functional) and not normal (dysfunctional) for white families. And it's possible that they have a default assumption about families of color that are the opposite of what they assume for white families. Maybe some of that is true or all of it is true. But it plays into how editors make news judgments.

M-A: Is there an unspoken sense, however uncomfortable this is, that perhaps because the family of an exploited or murdered child is of color, that “these things happen” in these communities?

McBride: Maybe. And maybe it's even worse than that. Maybe people of color are so much the other, that those in power just don't think of them at all.

M-A: Particularly in the case of Brisenia Flores, why do you think there wasn’t a bigger outrage factor, especially given the hate implications? The story received little coverage until the trials this year, though the murders occurred two years ago.

McBride: Yes, I'm appalled that that story didn't get more attention. Some of this is predicated on local newspaper coverage. National outlets find out about stories because local newspapers do stories. The more stories that appear in a local publication, the more likely a national outlet is to pick up on them. The more the cops play up a story to the press, the more stories there will be.

In Florida, there are lots of newspapers and lots of cops too because it's a quite crowded state. So crime gets a lot of attention. In Arizona, there are fewer people and an even less competitive press environment.

M-A: The coverage disparity isn't unique to cases involving children. The same questions have come up regarding stories of missing or murdered adults, particularly young women like Mitrice Richardson, whose disappearance received only minor coverage at first. What should be done about this? If an adjustment in the newsroom needs to occur, what is it?

McBride: With adult victims, the assumptions are even worse.

It depends on what kind of newsroom it is. This is an easier problem to solve on a local level. Journalists simply need to make sure they are examining all murders and missing people and giving them similar coverage. (That's actually really hard to do, but it's easier than the national solution.) And because local journalists are loyal to their local community, they are generally motivated to serve that audience well.

On a national level, journalists are not accountable in the same way. So there's less motivation to change the dynamics that lead to tilted coverage. It would take a significant act of leadership at a place like CNN or Fox to break out of this cycle. And I'm not sure there's enough accountability to make that happen.