The Problem With Showing Smiling Family Photos Of Christopher Watts

Christopher Watts
Christopher Watts, a 34-year-old Colorado man was charged today with "nine felony charges, including three first-degree murder charges, two counts of murdering a child, one count of unlawful termination of a pregnancy and three counts of tampering with a deceased human body," in relation to the murder of his pregnant wife and their two children.
Shanann Watts and her two daughters, Bella and Celeste, were reported missing on August 13. Christopher Watts soon appeared on television, tearfully appealing for his family's return and declaring that he was "in a nightmare he couldn't wake up from."
Two days later, on August 15, Watts was arrested in connection with their disappearance. The following day, Shanann, Bella, and Celeste's bodies were found at the site of a petroleum plant where Watts once worked. According to a court filing from Watts' attorney, the two girls had been disposed of in an "oil well filled with crude oil for several days."
Watts has yet to stand trial for these crimes and we are awaiting formal details of the reasons for his arrest. In the meantime, despite the horrific details of the case much of the press coverage around the prime suspect has mined Christopher and Shanann Watts' social media pages for photos. The couple were prolific posters, often expressing their love for one another and their family in public postings. Even after his arrest, photos of Christopher have been pulled from interviews he gave previously to the press, or from his Facebook page where he appears to be a handsome, smiling family man.
Some have begun to question why Christopher Watts seems to face different representation in the press from other men, such as Melvin Harris who was accused of fatally beating a man who attempted to enter a bathroom stall occupied by Harris' teenage daughter.
The disparity also calls to mind the coverage of Brock Turner's rape trial. Despite his conviction, authorities refused to release his booking and sentencing photos. Instead, news reports showed images of Turner smiling in a Stanford sweatshirt, in a suit and tie for a class photo, or at practice with the University swim team. Turner's mugshots were made available only after intense pressure from journalists and activists.
So why do mugshots matter?
A 2015 study conducted by the research center Media Matters and reported on by Vox found that "New York City television stations give disproportionate coverage to crimes involving Black suspects. According to New York City Police Department statistics, African Americans were suspects in 54 percent of murders, 55 percent of thefts, and 49 percent of assaults. But the suspects in the stations' coverage were Black in 74 percent of murder stories, 84 percent of theft stories, and 73 percent of assault stories."
These kind of disparities, when reported over and over again, form a false narrative about the nature of violent crime in our country and who is committing it. How the media chooses to portray a suspect or victim of a violent crime can bolster existing racial bias, feed into negative stereotypes, and even affect the judicial process.
In July, when 18-year-old Nia Wilson was stabbed to death at a Bay Area Rapit Transit train station, one local news outlet was quick to post photos, taken from Wilson's Facebook page, of her holding a gun shaped phone case. Despite the fact that Wilson's death was a random act committed by a known, violent offender, the photo became fodder that some used to blame the young woman for her own death. This incident underscores an implicit bias in the way media covers violence against women and race.
As journalist Chagmion Antoine told Refinery29 at the time, "Clearly news media that feels its audience is predominately white is going to have pressure, either subconscious or conscious, to appeal to a white sensibility."
Showing photos of Christopher Watts that present him exclusively as a family man fuels an existing and inaccurate stigma about violence against women. More than 55% of all female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner. And in a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention it was found that, "of slain women of reproductive age, about 15 percent were pregnant or had recently given birth." Shanann Watts was reportedly 15 weeks pregnant at the the time of her murder.
And yet despite these well known statistics, the news media at large has reported this particular case as if it's an anomaly rather than part of much larger and disturbing pattern of violence perpetrated against women by men. The candid photos of Christopher Watts posing happily with his wife and children feed into this false narrative. They photos imply a question so that it doesn't have to be asked out loud: how could a man like that do something like this?
Watts has the right to due process, an unbiased investigation, and potential trial in relation to these murders. But it's important to remember that, in our society, representation often becomes reality. Christopher Watts may well be the seemingly harmless, handsome, white man we've seen in so much of this coverage. He is also the man in handcuffs awaiting charges of homicide. He's the prime suspect in the brutal murder of a woman and two young girls at the hands of a man they knew and loved. And that scenario is far more common than the breathless media coverage of this case so far would have you believe.
This story was originally published on August 20, 2018 at 11:30 AM. It has since been updated to include the charges against Christopher Watts.

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