If you’ve read any news blogs or even watched a televised newscast in the last week and a half, chances are that you’ve heard the tragic story of Annie Le, the Yale grad student who disappeared ten days ago. Her body was found hidden inside a wall at the building where she worked last Sunday—which was to have been her wedding day. Now a lab technician named Raymond Clark has been charged with Annie’s murder.
This whole saga has been unbelievably upsetting and awful, and our hearts go out to Annie’s family and her fiancé. It’s also spurred a lot of interesting discussion about safety on college campuses—and why the media is curiously fascinated by crimes that occur on Ivy League campuses.
Slate editor Jack Shafer observes that the New York Times has written five stories about Annie’s case so far, while the Boston Globe has run at least six. A quick search shows that CNN.com has a whopping 14 stories about the murder. The media frenzy has been so… well, frenzied that an NBC producer was trampled when journalists and camera-people rushed to speak to a New Haven police spokesman on Tuesday.
This isn’t surprising—as Shafer also notes, “The press has long thrived on Harvard and Yale murder.” Any crime or scandal that happens at one of those two schools is basically guaranteed to be exhaustively analyzed by major media outlets—think of the 1998 murder of Yale senior Suzanne Jovin or even the 2006 plagiarism accusations lobbed at Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan.
But the same rule doesn’t apply to state schools and small colleges, where criminal incidents have to be pretty major to get national coverage. Why? Well, simply put, elite newspapers and magazines care about what’s happening at elite universities. And less erudite periodicals (read: trashy tabloids) love to sink their teeth into stories that prove bad things can happen even at America’s snootiest, most prestigious schools.
There are tons of problems with this model—it promotes the idea that students at schools with lower acceptance rates somehow matter more than everyone else, and it heaps unwarranted scrutiny on people who definitely have bigger things to worry about.
Even so, maybe the continual coverage of Annie’s death will lead to some good if it spurs female college students to start making a greater effort to stay safe. Yes, Annie was probably killed by someone who knew her inside of a supposedly secure building, but what happened to her can still serve as a reminder that all of us regularly engage in risky behavior: going out and getting too drunk, taking public transportation or walking home late at night, even forgetting to lock the door or leaving the window open if your room is on a low floor. Ironically enough, in February, Annie wrote a piece entitled “Crime and Safety in New Haven” for a Yale magazine. We’d all do well to try following her advice.