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A plea for journalistic integrity

Zoegarcia A 7-year-old girl named Zoe Garcia was killed a few days ago after being brutally beaten, allegedly by her sister and sister's boyfriend. According to the police report, the teens hit, kicked, and body-slammed her until she lost consciousness.

Before anything else, we must consider the pain and anguish of the family and friends of Zoe Garcia and extend to them our deepest condolences. Any death is bound to cause suffering, but when the victim is a small child, it's impossible to fathom the emotional devastation faced by those closest to her.

In light of these thoughts, I find myself especially disturbed by the callous and sensationalized reporting of this tragic event. In what will come as no surprise to anyone who follows the mainstream U.S. media, video games are once again being linked as a cause.

A brief sampling of headlines:

  • "Teens Charged in 'Mortal Kombat' Killing" - CNN
  • "Mortal Kombat Killing: Zoe Garcia Murdered by Sister, Boyfriend" - The Post Chronicle
  • "Sister Charged in 'Mortal Kombat' Death of 7-year-old - The Denver Post
  • "Teens Charged in 'Mortal Kombat' Death" - USA Today
  • "Still No Burial Plans in 'Mortal Kombat' Killing" - Fox News Colorado
  • "Teens Charged in Video Game-Related Slaying" - WJBF-TV
  • "Mortal Kombat" Teens Fatality 7-year-old - CrunchGear

Recent reports suggest conflicting information about whether or not the couple had been playing the game Mortal Kombat prior to the incident. It's also unclear whether the police affidavit obtained from the sister specifically claims the couple were imitating the game.

Certain other facts, however, are very clear...even if they appear nowhere in the headlines:

  • Court records show a history of neglect and abuse charges against Dana Trujillo, Zoe Garcia's mother, in both Colorado and New Mexico.

  • Trujillo has had six children with four different fathers, one of whom had been living with Trujillo and the girls until he was arrested Dec. 3 for escaping from jail earlier this year.[1]

  • Authorities in Socorro, N.M., filed three counts of abandonment or abuse of a child against Trujillo in November 2003. The complaint states that Trujillo left her children in the house with a babysitter and didn't return that night. A neighbor complained the next day, and police went to the house with the paternal grandmother of the Garcia girls and woke up the babysitter in the back bedroom. The girls said they hadn't eaten or bathed that day.[2]

  • The girls had been removed from the home twice by authorities before being returned to their mother.

  • School District Superintendent Dr. Martin Foster has confirmed that the district sent a referral to the county Social Services agency at the beginning of the school year because staff had noticed marks and bruises on Zoe.[3]

  • The boyfriend charged has confessed to being drunk at the time of the incident.

I realize video games have become easy targets, and I understand the market-driven necessity to sell papers, hook viewers, and drive traffic. I can even accept the occasional need to hype a hot scoop that may otherwise go unnoticed. This is not one of those stories.

My question to the journalists and editors covering the story is simple. With all this pertinent information available--nearly all of it publicly accessible--how can you defend a headline or report that suggests this girl's death was somehow caused by a video game?

It's time we demand more accountability from journalists who uncritically scapegoat video games for all manner of social ills. To newspapers like the Denver Post, which has continued to dig through this story in all its tragic complexity, I say thank you. To Fox News Colorado and all the other outlets who chose to include graphic gameplay footage of Mortal Kombat in their reporting of this story, I say shame on you. You can do better, and in the future I hope you will.