How would the media have talked about Florida’s frat boy killer if he was black?
Harrouff is described as a ‘star high school football player and an excellent student’
19-year-old Florida College student, Austin Harrouff, has been charged with a double homicide after killing two people and being found by police biting the face of one of his victims.
Harrouff had returned home for the weekend with some of his Alpha Delta Phi fraternity brothers to visit their families. The story goes that he had stormed out of a family dinner at a restaurant and on his way home found two people sitting in their garage outside their home, who he then attacked and killed. The victims have been identified as John Joseph Stevens, 59, and his wife, Michelle Karen Mishcon, 53.
A shocking and horrifying crime, but a layer of intrigue is added by the fact that almost exactly four years ago, a similar incident occurred 90 miles down the coast.
The discrepancy in treatment of black people and white people by American police fills our news headlines on a routine basis, with organisations such as Black Lives Matter coming to the fore and rebuilding the Black Liberation Movement.
Receiving less attention is the way that the media handles racial bias in reporting on crime. With these two crimes, that share similarities in content and geographical location, we have the chance to pose questions as to how they have been reported.
This is an example of the kind of pictures used reporting Harrouff:
Harrouff’s crime was announced by others, such as Buzzfeed and Miami Herald, with a picture of him smiling on a rooftop bar with a sprawling city below, wearing a faternity top.
Eugene’s was a mugshot from former petty crimes:
Police response at the time of the event
Rudy Eugene, 31, was shot dead after police found him chewing the face of another man. In Austin’s case, police used a stun gun and a K-9 as they attempted to pull him off of his victim, until four officers eventually waded in to physically restrain the college sophomore.
Eugene’s criminal history is used to normalise him going on to commit such a serious and horrifying crime. He is identified by police as “a divorcee with a history of arrests”, the headline of the article refers to him as a “naked ‘cannibal'” whereas Harrouff, The Police Chief goes on to tell reporters, “was a good kid,”
After the stark difference in how each man was reprimanded by police, the way that they talk about each perpetrator to the press lays the foundations for how each will be portrayed in headlines and news stories.
Description in the media
Eugene is depicted in a mugshot from previous run-ins with the law – crimes that are described as a “handful of misdemeanours”.
One journalist’s report reads, “What doesn’t make sense to police is that Harrouff does not fit the typical description of a deranged murderer.” He is described in the Miami Herald as a “star high school football player and an excellent student”. It is repeatedly mentioned that he had no criminal record.
Blaming external circumstances for the crime
The Miami Herald echoed the understandable confusion of police surrounding Harrouff’s actions, “Something made a young man go mad.” No such pontificating is offered to Rudy Eugene’s case.
Police suspect that both incidences are linked to unconfirmed use of psychoactive drugs causing both to make “animal noises”, “growling and grunting” but Eugene’s actions are described as a “gruesome attack” whereas four years later, a police chief tells the press, “There was a lot of violence in that garage”.
For near-identical crimes, we should not only expect near-identical treatment of the perpetrators by the police but also the media. The disparity in portrayal is sensational at best – sinister at worst.