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what the ohio kidnapping commentary says about the media and society

Image: Getty

Image: Getty

The internet has been flooded with articles and commentary on the Ohio kidnapping rescue story that broke Tuesday AEST. While many articles simply recap the events, other pieces have surfaced that reflect the underlying issues of sexism, racism, and discrimination against the mentally ill that pervade the media.

The story itself is captivating, and it is unsurprising that people around the world want to voice their opinions. Three young women were separately abducted around ten years ago; all have been found physically safe and well in a home in Cleveland, Ohio. Ariel Castro, 52, who lived at the home, and his brothers, Pedro and Onil, ages 54 and 50, have been arrested in relation to the crime. The girls, Amanda Berry, Georgina ‘Gina’ DeJesus, and Michele Knight, have reportedly been reunited with their families. A young girl, identified as Berry’s six-year-old daughter, was also rescued. Reports suggest that another young girl, Amanda Summers, also went missing in the area in 2007, but it is not known if her disappearance is related to this case.

The interest in the tragic episode is widespread. The man who rescued Berry, Charles Ramsey, has gone viral on social media. The use of his live local news interview is one facet of the story that is troubling. As Gene Demby from Code Switch points out, Ramsey’s dramatic interview style places him in the category of ‘poor black folks who became unlikely Internet celebrities’.  Ramsey has already been ‘autotuned’ and is trending on twitter. But as writer Sarah Kendzior tweeted, ‘I have a feeling half the ppl who say “Oooh I love watching him on the internet!” would turn away if they saw him on the street.’

Ramsey highlighted the issue of segregation and racism in America when he joked: ‘Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms’. Cleveland is in the top ten most segregated cities in America. His comments have already become internet legend, at the risk of reducing Ramsey to a stereotype of poor, black African-American.

The discussion of gender is another problematic element of the media commentary of this story.  The celebration of Ramsey’s efforts (while of course worth celebrating) seemed to overshadow the fact that it was Berry who raised the alarm by screaming and begging for help. Once freed by Ramsey, who kicked in the bottom of the door, Berry alerted police to the fact that there were others still inside. Her role in the rescue has since gained attention. It’s worth noting that Ramsey rejects claims he is a “hero”, rather saying he did what any decent man would do.

The apparent helplessness of the girls was the subject of a callous article from The Telegraph that used details from other well-known kidnapping cases to speculate that the women had a “bond” with the Castro brothers. The article used sensationalist arguments to suggest the women weren’t physically held against their will, but were rather the victims of psychological domination. Such a report is at this stage unverifiable and ignores the physical reality of the women’s experience.

As evidenced above, coverage of the story reflects on attitudes towards mental health. The Telegraph used the experience of other women to draw conclusions on what Berry, DeJesus, and Knight suffered mentally. Furthermore, rumours are flying that Michele Knight has received far less media attention than the other two women because she is either black, or has some sort of mental illness (or both). The lack of information on Knight (even her age is unconfirmed, although most reports suggest she was born in 1981, and no photos have surfaced) makes this difficult to verify, but comments on the story from Katie Barker at Jezebel make for some interesting reading.

It is true that Knight has not received the enduring attention that the other girls have had since their disappearance. Judy Martin, founder of the Cleveland advocacy group Survivors/Victims of Tragedy, told NBC News that Knight simply ‘slipped through the cracks.’ According to NBCNews.com, police acknowledge that the search for Knight was not widespread, but promise that her story will come out.

The commentary on the Ohio kidnapping case is nearly as fascinating as the story itself. A focus on the unbiased truth should provide more than enough interest for those following the story around the world. What is critical at this stage is to remember that each person involved in this incident is a human, not a stereotype or headline, and to treat them accordingly.

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