Two teens steal a truck with weapons inside and criss-cross multiple states committing numerous crimes and evading police officers. Sounds like a criminal case, and a potential public safety risk, so how did the media report on it before they were finally arrested on Sunday after two weeks on the run? By labeling the teens involved, Dalton Hayes and Cheyenne Phillips, as “a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde” and “love-struck runaways.” Three guesses as to the race of the suspects, and the first two don’t count.
While the drama may be over, the legacy of the reporting remains.
If the story had revolved around two Black teens, the kind of headlines used would play out very differently. The public would no doubt have read about “thugs” and “criminals,” with other choice and highly racialized language used to describe the two teens and the series of events that led to the initial truck theft. The media even popped in for a jailhouse interview, turning Hayes into a virtual celebrity. The two white teens got the kid glove treatment in the media, highlighting a racial double standard when it comes to how criminal news is reported in the United States; white criminals, and white crime, are treated very differently from people of color. If all races are created equal, newsrooms have a funny way of showing it.
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The Kentucky teens stole a truck with at least one weapon inside and moved across state boundaries into both South Carolina and Georgia, clearly following a confused path as they couldn’t decide what to do. Early in their flight from home, they abandoned the truck, likely in response to police pursuit, but their new ride also contained weapons, posing a clear and present risk to members of the public. At the same time, the pair were writing fraudulent checks from the checkbook they’d discovered in one of the vehicles they stole. By all appearances, the situation since their disappearance on Jan. 4 was escalating — but it was still being treated like an ordinary human interest story.
Their “crime spree” seemed almost droll to the media, reporting on it as a matter of general public interest, rather than as evidence that white teens are dangerous and prone to committing crimes, as would have been the case if the teens in question were people of color. In discussions of the case, the media focused instead on Hayes and Phillips as individuals, not as representatives of white people en masse, and interviews with their parents stressed a desire for the teens to surrender and return home — but there was little mention, as there would be in the case of Black teens, of fears that they might be shot by police.
Black parents of teens in a similar situation would likely have been sitting by the phone with dread at this stage of the proceedings, well aware that should someone call 911 on their children, the police would arrive with itchy trigger fingers, not a desire to resolve the situation peacefully. Across the United States, protests erupted last year over the deaths of unarmed, innocent Black men, underscoring the acute awareness in America’s Black consciousness that to be Black and alive is dangerous. Yet, for the parents of these teens, there was little doubt that their children would make it home safely — as in fact they did — highlighting a privilege that parents of color do not have.
The media’s racial double standard in this case reflects a social double standard, but thanks to the prominent role of the media, the reporting also reinforces social inequality. As long as people who flip open a newspaper or turn on the news read such biased reporting, they’re going to continue internalizing it and taking away painful lessons about minorities.