How the media's racialized coverage of the Central Park Jogger case influenced the conviction of five young minority men accused of "wilding" and affected the American juvenile justice system
Race, Media, and the Central Park Jogger Story
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In 1989, the rape and beating of a white female jogger in Central Park made international headlines. Many accounts reported the incident as an example of “wilding”—episodes of poor, minority youths roaming the streets looking for trouble. Police intent on immediate justice for the victim coerced five African-American and Latino boys to plead guilty. The teenage boys were quickly convicted and imprisoned. Natalie Byfield, who covered the case for the New York Daily News, now revisits the story of the Central Park Five from her perspective as a black female reporter in Savage Portrayals.
Byfield illuminates the race, class, and gender bias in the massive media coverage of the crime and the prosecution of the now-exonerated defendants. Her sociological analysis and first-person account persuasively argue that the racialized reportage of the case buttressed efforts to try juveniles as adults across the nation.
Savage Portrayals casts new light on this famous crime and its far-reaching consequences for the wrongly accused and the justice system.
“Byfield has a strong and compelling narrative voice, not to mention a really important story to tell. What particularly holds Savage Portrayals together is the vantage point of her being a black female inside the world of white-dominated journalism in a sophisticated city like New York. Byfield combines this with a nuanced understanding not only of black and white race relations, but also, and most importantly, of the media's role in constructing the racial order/social structure. The exposé she provides on the ways in which race taints the ability of editors and other opinion-makers to live up to the highest standards of journalistic integrity and balance is truly important in this age of mass incarceration of men of color.”
"Byfield brings bifocal vision to her analysis of media treatment of the Central Park Jogger story, which she covered in her first career as a journalist for the New York Daily News.... From her current perspective as a sociologist, Byfield reexamines the horrific event in light of after-acquired evidence and scholarly methodology, particularly content analysis of news coverage, and she tells a revised story in which issues of race, class, and media bias taint the justice system. VERDICT: A chilling, ultimately instructive portrayal of savage injustice."
"[A]n important study.... The author reviews the race, class, and gender issues in the heavy media coverage of the case, melding her own reporting of the case with that of others. Among other things, she argues that public pressure in such cases often leads to juveniles being tried as adults—as happened here. This is an important cautionary tale."
"[Byfield's] insights into covering the story powerfully illustrate the institutionalized relationship between law enforcement agencies and media outlets in the formation of dominant news discourses. Savage Portrayals highlights the connections between the Central Park jogger case and a number of other high-profile and racially divisive court cases to enduring structural and racial inequalities in the 1980s. Byfield clearly and critically examines how through color-blind discourses, factors such as class, sex, and geography act as important stand-ins for race. Perhaps the most important subtext of her argument relates to how class as an indicator of race took on broader significance as an important societal institution.... The continuing significance of race in media depictions of criminality and social order make Byfield's firsthand account of journalistic and criminal justice bias both timely and important."
"[C]ompelling...Byfield's role as reporter for the Daily News in the late 1980s and early 1990s provides a valuable lens through which to view the inner workings of a major newsroom.... Students and scholars of news media will find Byfield's analysis of the institutionalized relationship between the police and media nothing short of extraordinary."
"Byfield seamlessly alternates her voice with that of an observer and offers a more objective view of the news coverage and its possible impact on case outcomes.... The book is well-written and engaging.... Its publication is especially timely.... Byfield's autoethnographical accounts of newsroom relations provide unique insight into the news-making process for sensationalized stories.... There is much to be learned from this book."
"Byfield’s Savage Portrayals is a timely, revelatory, and remarkable book. The notorious 1989 Central Park jogger case serves as a case study of the social production of journalism and the book’s skeletal armature. Its flesh and blood are the powerful micro- and macro-level forces that circulate to reinforce social inequality and status hierarchies at the intersection of race, class, and gender in American society.... a unique achievement.... Savage Portrayals is an excellent supplemental text for courses related to media sociology, critical race and gender studies, urban sociology, stratification, or qualitative methods."
Natalie Byfield is Associate Professor of Sociology at St. John's University in Queens, New York. She has also taught in Journalism and Media Studies. She is a former Staff Writer for the New York Daily News.