Why Is the Media Erasing the Victims of Violent Crime? | Opinion

In December of 2019, an 18-year-old Barnard student named Tessa Majors was stabbed to death in West Harlem by a teen who was attempting to rob her. I'm sure you remember her: The daughter of an English professor, Tessa was said to have been a gifted musician and brilliant poet. She had big dreams for the future and loved her cats and her younger brother.

Roughly two years later, on January 9, 2022, 19-year-old Kristal Bayron-Nieves was working the night shift at a Burger King on the exact same street on the other side of town, in East Harlem. An unidentified man came in, threatened her with a gun, took $100 and then shot and killed her. Kristal and her family had moved to New York from Puerto Rico, and she had recently told her mother she was afraid to go to work. Unfortunately, this is all I know about her due to the lack of media interest in her murder.

Why did two young women who had their whole lives ahead of them and who were murdered just a mile apart on 116th street hold such different spaces in our collective national newsfeed? Why does a search for one name lead to 508 results in the New York Times and the other a deafening zero? The only mention of Kristal in The Times is a reference to a "someone": In a story detailing Mayor Adams' itinerary, we are told Adams "visited a Burger King where someone was killed during a robbery."

It's tempting to think this disparity in attention stems from racism, but that's a simplistic explanation for the more complex truth, namely, that the disparity is driven by a class disconnect.

Media figures who drive public conversation in the press and on social media are actually quite homogenous. They tend to come from similar upper-class backgrounds, attend the same elite schools, listen to the same podcasts and have alarmingly similar politics to their peers. They don't work at Burger King. Heck, they don't even eat at Burger King.

Plainly speaking, they don't see themselves in Kristal. And we tend to pay attention to what we know. Empathy tugs at the heartstrings when we can easily put ourselves in a victim's shoes.

This is natural. But it's also a big problem. Because when we allow our personal experiences and only our personal experiences to dictate what is deserving of our attention, we are also dictating whose life is deserving of our protection. And the truth is, we are leaving the majority of Americans behind.

crime wave
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK - AUGUST 20: New York City police officers secure and investigate a shooting scene on August 20, 2020 in downtown Brooklyn, New York. Two men got into a fight and both pulled out guns, with one being critically wounded with a gun shot wound to the head. New York City, and Brooklyn in particular, has seen a dramatic increase in gun violence this summer. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

But it's not just an empathy gap separating Tessa's murder from Kristal's. Somehow in 2022, we reached a point in the national discussion when publicly mourning murder at the hands of a brazen criminal constitutes a political statement. The national reckoning that followed the killing of George Floyd in 2020 created unspoken yet very clear rules for any discussion related to crime: Drawing attention to it has been branded as serving a "law and order" agenda that is allegedly "dangerous" to people of color. In this warped view, shaped largely by social media, police misconduct is far more urgent a cause than violent crime, and the former can only be properly addressed if we downplay the latter.

Erased in this new dogma have been all the victims of inner city crimes, whose names we no longer mention—a big fat zero in the New York Times search bar. That's because when we are faced with heart-wrenching stories of victims, we now think twice before we bring them up, lest we be accused of batting for the wrong team.

And yet, the politicization of crime is a luxury commodity. For journalists or people who dabble in social media thought leadership, a 2 percent or 20 percent increase in crime is just a number in a larger political discussion. But while the elites are debating whether to hit send on that tweet, millions of Americans are left with the day-to-day reality of the rise in violent crime. For far too many people, 2 percent or 20 percent is the difference between life and death.

A friend recently made the apt point that too many people who talk about criminal justice pay no price for being wrong. They're not the ones who hear gunshots outside the window on a regular basis, or know exactly where they can and cannot go in their own neighborhoods. If they're taking the subway at midnight, it's because they're coming back from a party, not going to work.

Privilege is being able to discuss crime as an abstract policy concept, and not a daily reality.

In a city and country that attracts ambitious young people searching for a better life, Tessa and Kristal could have found themselves one day working the same job, or in the same graduate school program. Their futures could be parallel, instead of their fate being identical. But in our collective discussions, fueled by 280 character "hot takes" that flatten complex issues into black and white, right or wrong, one is remembered, while the other is just "someone."

I don't think we should talk about Tessa Majors less than we talk about Kristal Bayron Nieves. In fact, we should talk about both more. We should show the names and faces of the thousands of homicide victims in America in 2021, and not allow ourselves to become numb or distance ourselves from their lives. We can only hope that these young women (and those who, sadly, will follow) become household names, and that a demand for justice will follow any mention of their tragic stories.

Say their names.

The man who murdered Kristal Bayron-Nieves is still at-large. There is a $10,000 reward for anyone who can lead to his arrest.

Yael Bar tur is a social media consultant specializing in crisis communications and law enforcement, and was formerly director of social media for the NYPD. You can find her on Twitter @yaelbt.

The views in this article are the writer's own.