cover_story (2007-11)

You don't need another rehashing of the grisly details. You know about the male corpse that was found beside the railroad tracks, shot, burnt and bound in a blanket. The female's body was discovered nearby inside a Chipman Street rental house, dismembered and stuffed into a garbage can. And though officials have yet to say exactly how she was killed, or elaborate on the events leading up to her death, there's a part of you that already knows. Like a sentence with the vowels left out, the mind has a knack for filling in the blanks. Even those you'd rather leave empty.

Thanks to the swift attention of local media, it didn't take long for reports of the carjacking turned double-homicide to ripple out into the community. Strung together, the streaming succession of daily newspaper headlines read like its own narrative: "Woman missing after boyfriend found dead," "Missing woman found dead in N. Knox house," "Brothers sought in double homicide," "Marshal: Man shot, burned, woman raped," "3 held in double slaying."

Photos of the young couple, two fresh-faced kids from the suburbs, appeared on newscasts and in print, revealing 21-year-old Channon Christian's emerald green eyes and 23-year-old Christopher Newsom's all-American smile.

Revealing also that the victims were white and, via a subsequent series of mug shots, that the three men and one woman arrested for the couple's murder are black.

FACT

Statistically speaking, Knox County's murder rate is about on par with what is to expected of a municipality its size. According to Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) data, there were 29 murders in Knox County during the year 2005 (2006 numbers won't   be available until May). That's slightly higher than Hamilton County (Chattanooga), which had 24 murders, but significantly lower than Davidson County (Nashville), which had 97 murders, and Shelby County (Memphis), which had 147 murders. Factoring in the four counties' populations, explains TBI spokesperson Jennifer Johnson, "That's an incident rate of ".07 for Knox County, .08 for Hamilton County, .16 for Shelby County and .17 for Davidson County."

Knox County Sheriff Jimmy "J.J." Jones says that it's not fair to judge an area's safety by a single crime. "In regard to the Christian/Newsom murders, the suspects in that case were not from around here," he explains. "They came to this area and committed a heinous crime. This is not typical of the crimes committed here.... I say that this is one of the safest areas in the state of Tennessee. I'm comfortable with the job that law enforcement is providing in the city and the county. We're working hard to make sure citizens stay safe every day."

PERCEPTION

Nobody wants to speak up about it , the letter began, but for me, Knoxville lost a lot of its innocence and charm with the double murders of Newsom and Christian.

When Metro Pulse contacted Shinsky a month later, his feelings hadn't changed. It's not that he's naive, he says; a former resident of Detroit, Shinsky recalls the "feeling of dread" he'd get when he went into downtown "Murder City" (a play on Detroit's nickname, "Motor City") for a sporting event, and the way nobody ever really stuck around after the game was over. "It was this feeling of get in, and get out," he recalls. "I just did not like that city. It was just non-stop bad news. You actually become numb to it. It's like, 'What's next?'"  

Shinsky says he's gotten in arguments before with his brother, who reminds him that crime is everywhere, even in Knoxville. Up until recently, Shinsky would counter that, although his brother may be right about the universality of crime, it wasn't as bad here. But he doesn't say that anymore.

I hate to think what this crime may have started , the letter continued. Let's not fool ourselves. If the alleged perpetrators are guilty, then this was not only opportunity motivated, but racially also.

"When this trial happens, the race card will be thrown," Shinsky says, echoing a prediction that has already been made by many, and reminding him of the racially charged atmosphere that he thought he'd left behind.

"Since I've been here, people have been great, black or white," he says. "Everyone seems friendly, cordial--people open doors for other people, they say thank you--and I just would hate for that attitude, that us versus them mentality, to happen here. Blacks in the city, whites in the suburbs, racial segregation... Knoxville is my home, and I don't want to see it turn into another Detroit."

RACE

"It's a tough question," says Kelly Johnson, a local criminal defense attorney, "because the media is in a position where they have to report those things, and what they have is two young, white people allegedly killed by three African-American gentlemen and an African-American woman. Does the media take more interest in a case when there are white victims? I don't know. Maybe."

A 2001 study prepared by the Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Justice Policy Institute suggests that the answer is yes. The study, which surveyed a range of print and broadcast media sources and analyzed their content for coverage of violent crimes, found that the proportion of crimes committed by people of color (mostly blacks) was over-reported, while black victims were underrepresented:

In news coverage, blacks are most often the perpetrators of violence against whites and other blacks, whereas in reality whites are six times as likely to be homicide victims at the hands of other whites.

Johnson says it would be unrealistic to believe that such biases don't bleed into the courtroom as well. "I think that even in 2007 we'd be putting our heads in the sand to think that racism wasn't at least partially a factor in every case," he says. "Racism is a factor in daily life, in every facet, so there's no reason to believe that it's not in the courtroom."

MEDIA

One is that crime news is easy--everyone knows what it looks like, how to gather it, and how to report it. Some journalists argue that audiences want news about violence, though most polls dispute that argument. Another reason is that news is a business, and reporters, producers and editors have learned to choose the news they believe will draw the most attractive audience for advertisers ....

Jaime Foster, news director of WATE Channel 6, counters that his station's emphasis on crime coverage boils down to an issue of safety. "We ask ourselves the question, 'By reporting on this crime, are we helping the public in some way?,'" he says. "We serve the public first. It's our job to make sure the public is as well informed with what's going on--the investigation, the search--as they possibly can be or we possibly can be."

When news of the Christian/Newsom murders was breaking, for instance, that meant keeping the public up to date with new developments, whether those developments warranted a 20-second news brief or a full story. A search of WATE's website for content containing the words "Christian" and "Newsom" calls up a total of 17 articles about the double-homicide, though that may or may not be indicative of what was actually broadcast on the air.

But it is interesting to compare that number with the number of articles that came up on WVLT Channel 8's website during a similar search. WVLT has a full web page devoted to continuing coverage of the double-homicide, with 28 stories, a video of the murder suspects in court, PDFs of search warrants and other documents, a link to a Channon Christian YouTube tribute video, and a forum on which viewers could share their "thoughts and prayers."

Is the page unfair to other murder victims and their families who received less attention from the station? And what accounts for variations in news coverage from different media outlets? (WVLT did not respond to Metro Pulse 's request for a comment.)

Foster says WATE doesn't take other media outlets' coverage of stories into account when deciding how to report the news. Nor does it consider race, ethnicity or gender when choosing what to cover and how to cover it, he says. Rather, he says, the station's first priority is factual accuracy.

He cites last month's McClung Warehouse fire as an example. "There were six or seven different rumors floating around... but it's our job to sift through that stuff in a breaking-news situation," Foster says.

As for claims that broadcast media tend to play up some stories while allowing others to fly below the radar, Foster says, "We try not to be sensational. We try to present the stories on their own terms and let audiences at home make those decisions for themselves." WATE, he says, takes precautions not to sound like a police blotter, either: "You can't do, say, five or six crime stories in a row. You can't just pile up a bunch of crime and give it to viewers on a daily basis. That's not what we're here to do."

On the other hand, there are some newsworthy crime stories that we may never even hear about--and it's hard to tell in advance which ones those will be. Criminal-defense attorney Johnson recounts a high-profile animal-cruelty case that went to court last week, in which a woman was arrested for dragging a dog behind her car. Johnson, who was defending the woman, was greeted at the courthouse by a large turnout of PETA protestors and news cameras. Meanwhile, in the courtroom next door, a child rapist was being tried, to which no media coverage was given.

"I can tell you that [as a public defender], I personally have represented people who have pled guilty to horrible crimes, sometimes against children, and the courtroom is completely empty," he says. "Nobody calls me from the news media, the cameras don't show up, nobody's there protesting on behalf of the children."

Meanwhile, the media and the community have moved on to new headlines. Over the weekend, an alleged love triangle between a man, his wife and the 18-year-old man she was having an affair with came to a head. Police discovered the 18-year-old's body in his car, parked in front of the couple's house on Coker Avenue. He'd been shot through the driver's side window. The husband has since been charged with murder, and the wife placed on indefinite leave from her internship at West High School, where she is thought to have met the young man her husband killed.

FEAR

"The literature does show a strong impact of the media on individuals' perceptions about crime, including fear of crime," explains Dr. Hoan Bui, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee who specializes in crime and criminal justice.

Fear isn't a bad thing. It's an innate emotion, as much so as joy or sadness, and it's a survival mechanism. Without fear, we'd be careless with ourselves, allow ourselves to enter into potentially dangerous situations. In a sense, fear keeps us safe.

But it's also an unpleasant emotion to live with on a day-to-day basis.

Just ask residents of the West Knoxville/Cedar Bluff apartment complex Brendon Park, where 21-year-old Johnia Berry was stabbed to death in December 2004. Signs in and around the complex offer a constant reminder that the apartment complex was the scene of a murder, and that that the killer is still out there, somewhere, maybe even living in the residents' midst: $70,000 reward for information leading to Johnia Berry's killer , the signs read, offering a phone number and the address of Berry's website, which the family keeps updated on a regular basis.

"We've been doing as much as possible to keep this in the media, to get some results," Johnia's mother, Joan, told Metro Pulse last July, 19 months after the murder.

Around town, Johnia's face appears on billboards and upon the sides of GottaLook Media trucks, both courtesy of the business's owners. But two years after Johnia's murder, some have begun to question the ethics of injecting fearful reminders into the lives of the living in an effort to seek justice for the dead. I am sick and tired of seeing her face all over the place , an anonymous blogger wrote on the Johnia website. If they were going to find who did it [they] would have by now....

But fear was part of the equation long before Johnia was murdered, says Remonda Swafford, a longtime resident of the condominium complex next door to Brendon Park. Though her neighborhood, a cul-de-sac lined by attractive townhouses, looks more sleepy than it does dangerous, Swafford says that at one time, a series of break-ins had several of the neighborhood's residents sleeping on mattresses in front of their doors, with tables and chairs piled up in front of their back entrances. She remembers coming home one night and finding a bloody handprint on her French back door from where someone had broken through the glass.

"We were fearful at that time, and we're still fearful," Swafford says. "I think crime is on the increase anywhere you look."

After Johnia's murder, Swafford and her neighbors erected a six-foot-tall chain-link fence around the perimeter of their neighborhood, installed floodlights, hung Neighborhood Watch signs and organized a phone tree. "Basically, we became nosy neighbors," Swafford says. Not quite two months ago, Swafford also helped start a grassroots group called Knox County Citizens for Safety, which meets on a regular basis to discuss matters of neighborhood safety as well as serve as an outreach for families of the victims of unsolved crimes, such as the Berry family. So far the group has members from West and North Knox County, though they hope to have representatives from South and East Knoxville soon.

Since Johnia's murder, Swafford says the neighborhood has seen a visible decrease in suspicious activity, but that doesn't mean they're ready to let their guard down: "As a community, we need to be able to talk to one another about what we can do, how can we change this, how can we have a newer, safer Knoxville."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, residents of the Washington Pike apartment complex where Christian and Newsom were last seen before their carjacking are already taking similar steps, teaming up with police to improve security and limit access to their community. From here on out, anyone who enters the property must have a valid parking permit or proof that they've been invited to the apartment complex.

Chipman Street, on the other hand, has yet to exact any such plan.

MOVING ON

"It's awful to have to talk about it," she says. "It's just awful."

Hunley glances sideways at the skinny, gray house next door, where Channon Christian's body was discovered two months ago. In the weedy front yard sits a refrigerator, splayed open and empty, and garbage is shoved up against the chain link fence.

Hunley's own house, painted a sunny shade of yellow with a wind chime hanging from the porch, seems cheerful in comparison. Along the length of Chipman Street, such dichotomy is common: Some of the small houses look almost dollhouse-ish--clean, compact, uncluttered. Others appear nearly abandoned, with broken furniture turned up sideways on their porches, their yards unkempt and filled with rubbage. Dogs bark from behind rusty gates; cats crouch beneath beat-up cars.

Hunley says she wasn't here the night of the murders, thank God. She was working, and her 16-year-old daughter, a Fulton High School student, was at a friend's house. "She can't hardly sleep at night," Hunley says. "It's been real hard on her."

But they have no intentions of moving out of the neighborhood. "Why move now?," Hunley asks. "We just have to deal with it. We just have to look out for each other."

A big truck from the Waste Connections office at the end of the street rumbles past. The area is zoned industrial; along with the houses, many of them rental, there's a dilapidated truck-scales booth, large gravel lots and empty parcels overgrown with brittle, brown brush. As the truck rolls out of sight, everything grows still, quiet, the sun casting a strange, bright glaze across Hunley's winter-pale face.

"It's just like a ghost," she says. "It haunts you."