Quit calling defendants “black widows”!

Biased coverage is bad for crime cases.

Topics: Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

As you may have heard, two women in their 70s are charged with murdering two homeless men in the Los Angeles area back in 1999. Helen Golay, now 75, and Olga Rutterschmidt, 73, allegedly befriended the two men and took out multimillion-dollar life insurance policies on them, only to run the men over with their cars and start collecting on the policies. They were denied bail in late August and pleaded not guilty on Wednesday. If Golay and Rutterschmidt committed these nasty crimes, they deserve some seriously nasty sentences — and indeed, they are currently in jail, have been denied bail and are eligible for the death penalty. But the newsroom crackpot who decided to tar them with the nasty moniker “The Black Widows” also deserves a talking-to.

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Sure, comic-book nicknames are an important way of fanning audience interest in crime cases. But calling these defendants “black widows” reflects an unfortunate gender bias (female black widow spiders are venomous, while the males aren’t) and is a little misleading (anyone assuming these women are African-American and/or actual widows would be incorrect). Don’t get me wrong; I fervently hope justice is served in this case. But the Cruella de Vil overtones of the news coverage are doing no one any favors. As part of its coverage of the defendants’ not-guilty plea yesterday, the Associated Press reported that “Superior Court Commissioner James Bianco denied Golay’s request to be allowed to have mascara and tweezers to pluck her eyebrows.” Why do we need to know that?

For an interesting and evenhanded examination of the case that doesn’t refer to the accused women as spiders, check out last month’s Los Angeles Times profile.

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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