Swiss Cheese News and the Un-Mediagenic Reportage Barrier

Boing Boing has updated — with very little new information — about the case of Dymond Milburn in Galveston, Texas.

“Hey, look, a little black girl in her yard! She must be one of those hookers we’re looking for!”

“But the hookers we’re looking for are white. And she’s in her yard, with her doggie, fiddling with the circuit breaker.”

“SO?!?!? She’s totally a whore. I mean, look at how she’s dressed. What, are you scared? There’s four of us and one of her, bro. Come on, let’s go enforce the law.”

[Car door slams.]

“Hey, little black hooker girl. You’re under arrest for prostitution!”

“What?” (Grabs tree.) “Dad!”

“Oh, so you wanna make it hard on yourself, huh? I got a flashlight here and I’m gonna make you sorry. You want me too shoot your puppy-dog?”

Okay, so I’m taking major liberties by making the unspoken (“Hey little black girl!” was probably just “Hey!” and so on), and assuming that the girl’s story is true. Maybe the cops didn’t say those things: I’ve had my share of experiences where different people remember (or claim to remember) different things.

But let’s be realistic here. Let’s say the girl did fight back when these four (or, it’s been claimed elsehwre, it was three) cops tried to arrest her. I would too, if I was being arrested by four — or three, or two, or even one — strange adult men, who are in plainclothes and who could be anyone, really, pretending to be cops and kidnapping me.

Anyone would fight hard. And frankly, a teenaged prostitute would reasonably be expected to fight harder to avoid being kidnapped by strangers–probably much more than your average kid would, given what she’d almost certainly have seen of human nature. So even if they genuinely believed this girl was one of the prostitutes they were looking for, what the hell were they doing handling the situation this way? Is that their normal modus operandi: to cruise the neighborhoods and hop out en masse to arrest teenaged hookers? And expect them to just relax? Given the reputation of the Galveston police force, which is bad enough I’d heard about it all the way up in Montreal when I lived there?

Realistically, we certainly wouldn’t expect even one adult man — let alone several — to beat her up, putting her in the hospital. (I mean, even if she did get violent in the face of proper procedure, don’t they have non-lethal weapons to deal with people they’re arresting? A taser, say? A net gun? Okay, net guns don’t work so well, but there’s a whole world of non-lethal weapons out there. Do cops really have to hit people with flashlights in this day and age?)

And we wouldn’t expect them to fail to, you know, knock on the door and say, “Um, so is this your daughter, ma’am/sir? Oh, sorry, we thought she was someone else.”

We certainly wouldn’t expect them to arrest her and charge her with assault thereafter, or the DA to put the case before the court. Twice. I mean, charging a twelve year old girl, at her own home, with assault against a group of adult men? They’re essentially saying, “She started it!”, and it’s as believable as it is when you hear the football player say it while sneering at the bruised, broken-armed kid in glasses slumped in the chair at the principal’s office.

The bottom line is, every other doubt or excuse aside, this group of policemen must have been ridiculously unskilled if they couldn’t collectively immobilize (or even disarm) a single, presumably unarmed, teenaged girl without putting her in the hospital. Because trust me, there are techniques and tools available that would make it possible. Very possible.

But sadly, we would expect the media and the general public not to pay an iota of attention to this, because, as a number of commenters at BoingBoing noted, stories about little black girls being victimized by the cops just aren’t seen, by the media, as so mediagenic. Unfortunately, I am willing to believe that if she were a blond, blue-eyed child, this would be all over the front pages of newspapers, on TV, and unavoidably part of the public consciousness.

I don’t know anymore whether news of cops being brutal is deemed mediagenic or unmediagenic, but it seems clear to me that the race of the person they beat the crap out of definitely plays a part in how loudly the alarum gets raised by the maistream media. Which is why there are so many more questions about this case than answers, which is why what I’ve written above is mostly speculation, and which is why I don’t expect the case to be handled sensibly in any case.

Which is the very problem why most of what’s above in this post is speculation, not facts:  nobody’s bothered to report it all clearly. In essence, this news story is more full of holes than swiss cheese.

This reminds me of a very disturbing news report that Mike (aka Gumi Teacher) posted — not on his blog, but on Facebook. According to the Chosun Ilbo, an average of 164 Koreans disappear daily in Korea. Go read the article: it’s short, and simple, and a big deal.

No, really, go read it. I’ll wait.


Okay, well, then. I’ll say first that of course, not all of these cases are kidnappings, murders, or whatever. Some people disappear themselves, like one guy I met who was going by the Korean equivalent of “John Doe,” and said he’d fled his debts in Seoul. I’ve heard of those people who’ve just gone incommunicado from their families, and I can understand why: lots of families are just messy everywhere, and in Korea, the pressures of meeting familial expectations are so much higher that of course some people flee. Some  are teenaged runaways, some are adults who just decide to go it alone.

So we needn’t necessarily assume that it’s a huge rampaging series of kidnappings. But when I read that article, I found a lot of information simply missing, like:

  • if the police classify underage disappearances differently than disappearances by adults, which proportion of missing people fall into each category?
  • what proportion of the missing people are male, and  what proportion are female?
  • in approximately what percentage of the cases is foul play suspected, or a reasonable assumption?
  • what is the regional distribution of these cases — are the disappearances concentrated in Seoul, in and around smaller cities, or in the countryside? (Or does it average out to the same?) How many of these missing people are estimated to still be within Korean borders? (Instead of, say, having been trafficked to Guam, or San Francisco, or wherever?)
  • how many of the missing people turn up (alive)? In other words, how many missing persons cases end up being solved with a positive outcome? How many are found dead (either by suicide, which is after all rampant here) or murdered? How many simply remain unsolved?
  • how many of those missing people are Korean nationals? I’m not suggesting there’s a plot against white hakwon teachers, mind–though now Korean horror movie scripts somewhere between Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Please Teach Me English are budding in my mind–but I’m thinking of those mail order brides who just turn out to be so recalcitrantly un-Korean when they arrive here. I’m also thinking of Filipinas and others who come here on the promise of singing jobs, but end up being sucked into the sex trade. Approximately how many more people disappear here, but never even get onto the radar? Would it really be so hard to find out if the authorities cared enough to try? (I mean, it’s the sex trade. Customers can find them, after all.)
  • the change in disappearnce rate — that is, the apparent ongoing increase — noted in the article doesn’t get mapped onto the different kinds I’ve outlined above. Are more kids disappearing, and fewer adults? Are more young women, and fewer elderly people or young men? Are the rates for all types of disappearance steadily increasing? It’s really hard to even think about ways that these problems could be addressed, or whether the current approach is doing any good, without that information.

In effect, the article leaves out more than it tells. And it makes me wonder why these details, which seem so obviously important (to me at least) aren’t even gestured at, beyond implying that a lot of the cases are of children:

After a law on protection and support for missing children was enacted in 2005, the Police Agency for Missing Children under the Korean National Police Agency was established. It is open 24 hours a day to receive reports and distribute the cases to local police stations.

Besides the obvious gaffe of not including the phone number — my suspicion is that the reporter maybe didn’t feel like compounding the shame… that the details are, in essence, unmediagenic? After all, the above paragraph comes right on the heels of this (emphasis mine, by the way):

The number is considerably higher than in advanced countries. Japan had 88,000 missing and runaway cases in 2007, 22,000 more than Korea in the same year. But that is out of a population of 120 million, 2.5 times greater than Korea’s, so the missing rate is lower. In Korea, 1.3 people out of 1,000 go missing, as against 0.7 in Japan.

(Note the shameful international comparison, a major feature of Korean news stories of this kind.)

If statistics only started being collected in 2006, there could be a variety of reasons why the numbers are growing year by year: maybe there’s more reporting, or more systematic tracking; maybe more cases are being taken seriously instead of dismissed out of hand?

Or maybe the problem is that the special 24-hour task force simply isn’t succeeding in bringing those numbers down. I’m not suggesting that is the case: in fairness, it’s likely far too soon to say, “This approach isn’t working!” on the basis of only a couple of years’ worth of statistics.

But I have trouble, given the quality of reportage above, imagining any point arising at which people could reasonably say, “Yeah, we need to try another method, folks!” When so much information is left out, the most that anyone can (or will) do is go, “Wow! That’s a lot!” and then flip the page (or click that link) to the next story.

It’s as if the nitty-gritty is, likewise, seen as unmediagenic. Though, again, this is an English newspaper in Korea. It would be illuminating to know whether the Korean-language articles on the subject in major newspapers here parceled out more specific information, but it likewise would be telling about what gets deemed mediagenic for a specifically Anglophone, and potentially foreign, audience.

4 thoughts on “Swiss Cheese News and the Un-Mediagenic Reportage Barrier

  1. I’ve been following that story on BoingBoing. My thoughts go in a different direction. The story they picked up about the white, male, DC-area mayor who had his home invaded and dogs shot by a warrantless swat team looking for drugs didn’t get much play in the media either. (Though he got a quick apology from the local honcos, IIRC.) But the issue is the media being unwilling to speak truth to power when it comes to the police. (Go listen to the first few minutes of the first episode of “On the Hour”!)

    From that story you linked to, I actually find the “related articles” sidebar more frightening than the stat. Viz:

    “Girls Know More About Sex Than Boys, Survey Shows
    Court Lifts Restriction on Sexual Movies
    Runaway Teens Most Vulnerable to Youth Sex Trade
    Korean Teens Experience Sex Sooner These Days
    Parents Held Liable in Sexual Assault by Teenager
    October Is Korea’s Most Criminal Month
    Police Establish 24,000 Children’s Safe Houses
    Sex Crimes Among Korean Youth on the Rise
    Crimes by Foreigners ‘Remain Low’
    Time to Buckle Up to Fight Drugs
    Plastic Surgery Was Clue to Killer’s Identity
    More Policing for Serial Killer’s Patch”

    1. Yeah, thinking today I kind of realized there are other stories where the media is too chicken to stand up to the cops.

      (And I began thinking along the lines of Cory Doctorow’s story “Scroogled” about how authorities might find ways impose the same pressures on bloggers.)

      As for the sidebar, I can see how they would be scarier than the disappearances thing, except most of those are old news to me. Scary, but not fresh shock. Yes, there are a lot of problems, and unfortunately more internet “unfree speech” control and the apparent criminalization of abortion (the newest move by el Governmente these days, according to a Korean I was just talking to a few minutes ago who was railing against it) aren’t going to fix it at all.

      Amusingly, the crime rate among foreigners is very low. Which is precisely why a law is in the works claiming the crime rate among us is very high, and that we should have stricter immigration restrictions. Er… except our crime rate is much lower than the locals, so how… er, never mind. Your mention of Fox news is apt: in Korea, the norm is quite easily comparable to Fox. And its most strident critic (the left wing media) is pretty much a Leftist version of Fox. What a din.

  2. Thank you for linking to the boing boing story; I don’t read that blog. I sent it along in the comments form on Democracy Now!; maybe there’s some reason they didn’t cover it, or they did and I missed it. And I think I know what you’re driving at; the folks who disappear most may be from vulnerable sectors of the population? I find myself thinking of The Host for some reason, and all the “girls locked in basement” stories there have been over the past ten years or so, although admittedly these were in Europe and the US.

    1. Val,

      No problem, and yeah, I also thought immediately of The Host when I read that story about disappearing girls. Of course, I read the girl in The Host as a kind of metaphor for the other “disappearing girls” under the dictatorship — girls who serviced American troops and Japanese tourists, for example — so it all links up for me anyway.

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