From the Editor

Killings weren't ignored

Executive EditorNovember 28, 2009 

Earlier this year, police quietly formed a group from several agencies to investigate whether six unsolved homicides in and around Rocky Mount were connected.

That city of 60,000 is 55 miles east of Raleigh, and we don't often report from there.

But on July 8, we published our first of a dozen stories about the investigation. The article, which ran on our front page, gave the basics of the case and information on each of the six women.

In general, they led troubled lives; some had been involved in prostitution and illegal drug use. All were African-American.

On Sept. 1, Antwan Maurice Pittman, a convicted sex offender, was charged with murdering one of the women. Police won't say whether they think he was involved in the other slayings.

Some people in Rocky Mount and beyond think news outlets did not give this story enough coverage.

An article on newsweek.com last month asked: "Why have the Rocky Mount homicides been largely ignored?"

It noted that the disappearances of Chandra Levy, Natalee Holloway and Laci Peterson became national news, but the story of the Rocky Mount women did not. In contrast to the women in Rocky Mount, Levy, Holloway and Peterson were white, educated and from middle-class families.

Even though Rocky Mount is outside our primary coverage area in the Triangle, we thought this story was worth covering. Serial killers are rare. If one were on the loose, we wanted our readers to know.

News coverage makes a difference. It can help solve a case by provoking tips and new evidence. It can prompt reward money and the involvement of well-connected people. It can cause police agencies to put more investigators on the case.

Before Pittman's arrest, we published six stories on the Rocky Mount case; two of them ran on the front page and another was a column on the front of Triangle & Co. by Barry Saunders.

After Pittman was arrested, we published six more stories, including two on the front page (one was another Saunders column) and two others on the Triangle front.

I think we did a good job in recognizing this was a story of interest to our readers in the Triangle and Eastern North Carolina.

Andre Knight, a member of the Rocky Mount City Council and president of the local chapter of the NAACP, credits The Rocky Mount Telegram and WRAL for breaking the story of the investigation in late June. Mike Hixenbaugh, the Telegram's lead reporter on the story, has published many of the best stories on the killings.

Knight is critical of the national media. CNN aired a story, but Knight said the Rocky Mount killings have not received the attention of cases involving other women. He thinks race and class were factors in the story receiving little national coverage.

"We had some national attention but not nearly the attention we thought should have been brought to the women," he said in a phone interview. "Historically, when we look at women who have been abducted that have been killed - non-African-American women - I think the story has been reported by the national media."

Of The N&O he said: "I think that's adequate coverage, especially for The N&O to cover Rocky Mount a dozen times."

We could have done better. We would have liked to have broken the story about the investigation.

Even better would have been to identify the pattern of these deaths - the bodies were discovered in the same general area - months earlier and published those findings. We will continue to follow this story.

All lives have value, and every murder is a tragedy.

But not all homicides are as newsworthy as others. Making those coverage decisions is subjective. We have our own inclinations, as do each of you.

It's healthy for us to question the assumptions we make about which homicides we cover and which we do not.

john.drescher@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4515

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