Our VoiceImmigration

Media bias turns murderers of Latinos into “illegal immigration activists”

Jill Garvey • Feb 21, 2011

Mainstream news outlets barely cover tragedies when they involve victims who don’t fit strict criteria of what is considered worthy of media attention. If the victim is a person of color, poor, or considered unsavory or criminal, it’s unlikely that their story will be told. And when media conglomerates do cover these stories, they often get them wrong.

This was the case with 9-year-old Brisenia and her father Raul Flores, who were murdered in their Arizona home in 2009 by Shawna Forde and two alleged accomplices. Forde’s trial took place immediately after the tragic killing of another 9-year-old, Christina Green, the little girl fatally shot during the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But based on the scant coverage of Forde’s crimes and trial, few realized the overlapping tragedy of these two young Arizona girls both lost to violence. Commentator Nezua succinctly describes the disparity in coverage here.

When the Flores murders occurred, they were mostly reported on by bloggers and advocacy groups. Despite, or perhaps because of a climate in Arizona that was rife with violent and dehumanizing activity targeting Latinos, mainstream news failed to give the story enough attention.

Shawna Forde was recently convicted on two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted first-degree murder for the shooting of Flores’ wife and related aggravated assault and robbery counts. Again, little mainstream press attention was paid to the trial and conviction. CNN was one of only a handful of major news networks to report on the conviction.

I wish it could be congratulated.

Unfortunately CNN undid any benefit of reporting on the story by repeatedly describing Shawna Forde as an “anti-illegal immigration activist.”

A more fitting description would have been “child-killer” or “domestic terrorist.”

Plotting to kill and rob people of a certain ethnicity to support one’s ideological cause isn’t activism, it’s terrorism. A person who kills American citizens (as all the victims were) shouldn’t be described as “anti-illegal immigration,” she should be described as a cold-blooded murderer, first and foremost.

AC360 (a CNN program hosted by Anderson Cooper) producer Ismael Estrada did write a very sensitive article on the trial last month. Unfortunately, he or his editors couldn’t help but throw in the following line, “Prosecutors say Shawna Forde, a vigilante anti-illegal immigration activist, was not only the woman described in the home, but was also the ringleader of the home invasion and murder.”

Call Forde a vigilante, sure. Call her anti-immigrant, fine. But Shawna Forde wasn’t simply targeting undocumented immigrants. She was out to get anyone she perceived as a foreigner, and her twisted definition of foreign clearly had nothing to do with citizenship or the law.

There was at least one sole voice of reason on CNN’s roster who didn’t find it necessary to describe Shawna Forde as anything but what she is, a murderer. Opinion contributor Ruben Navarrette, Jr. wrote a compelling article for CNN that accurately described the details of the crime.

Unfortunately, Mr. Navarrette is essentially alone among his mainstream peers in refusing to adopt rhetoric that is damaging to immigrant communities.

Many have spoken out against biased terminology used by journalists and present in style guides. The ‘Drop the I-word’ campaign by Colorlines is just one example of a collective outcry to stop using the dehumanizing term ‘illegal’ to describe immigrants.

But it’s about more than just the term ‘illegal.’  It’s about a broad spectrum of language and sloppy assertions that unfairly portray immigrants in a negative light.

And in this case, portrays those who attack them as something other than violent bigots.

Less than legitimate, but no less influential network Fox News took distorted reporting on the Forde trial to a whole new low. Bill O’Reilly last week referred to the victims as “illegal aliens.” He also falsely portrayed Forde as a nutcase who’d been shunned by anti-immigrant groups. O’Reilly’s mistakes go beyond irresponsible reporting, they are complicit in efforts by the anti-immigrant movement to distance itself from Forde and portray the victims as criminals.

Most writers, commentators and journalists have at one time or another mischaracterized someone or something. And sometimes it is done by mainstream media collectively. The point is not to say if these mistakes are made, but to ask if those who bring us our news have the courage to correct them.

The mainstream media was put on notice long ago about its bias when it comes to rhetoric that dehumanizes immigrants and by extension anyone who may be perceived as a foreigner.

And there should be no doubt that this bias is being documented.

Violence has already come knocking at the doors of those targeted by xenophobia. History will surely judge those who turned a blind eye.

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