LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - Only a few hundred people live in the town of Grady, but actions that may take place there are drawing the attention of millions. Eight inmates are scheduled to be executed there, leading to an unusual level of attention for Arkansas.
“Arkansas is not a major media hub, and we’re not really connected to any major media hubs, so it’s sort of rare to get that national coverage in the state,” said Professor Dylan McLemore, an associate professor in the communications department at University of Central Arkansas. “So when it does happen, it sort of stands out.”
Reporters from both coasts and beyond have traveled to Arkansas to cover the planned executions. Among the publications are the Los Angeles Times and Time Magazine, but journalists have come from as Germany to share details about the justice system in Arkansas.
“For [Germans], it is unimaginable,” explained David Hammelburg, a producer for the German broadcasting network ARD. “We then think, oh, okay, that’s what they do in Iran and Saudi Arabia. I mean, that’s how bad it gets.”
Hammelburg has spent nearly a year covering the execution process. His work grew out of a story about the company that makes one of the drugs frequently used in lethal injections, and then picked up steam when Governor Asa Hutchinson scheduled the eight executions for a 10-day span.
“So it just sort of fell into this perfect little story,” Hammelburg added. “I thought it was unique and compelling in every sense of the word.”
“This is the sort of story that is going to attract national attention, because of just the uniqueness of it, the uniqueness of the time span,” McLemore, who studies the media’s impact on consumers, mentioned. “I mean, we haven’t seen a time span like this for executions since the death penalty was reinstituted. So it’s unique in that fact.
“There’s conflict going on, there’s proponents and opponents. There’s interest groups that are getting involved in this, as well. There’s also the drama of, like, there’s going to be court battles up to the final hour. And we might not want to admit it, but that drama is part of what drives news coverage.”
There is also an interest in the timing of the execution schedule. Of the three drugs Arkansas uses, one of them, midazolam, will expire at the end of April, leading some people to believe the state is rushing the process.
But Germans have more than one reason to care. Hammelburg estimated that nearly 90 percent of Europeans oppose the death penalty, so they are fascinated by the fact that so many American states still use it.
“And this one in particular, because of the fact that there was such a time rush to use the last eight vials that were still non-expired to kill the list of eight people,” he stated. “We found that Draconian, insane, and, really, downright scary.”
Additionally, Germans have economic reasons to learn more about the state of Arkansas. The state’s Economic Development Commission opened a special office in Berlin last year to encourage more trade between German and Arkansan companies. “We thought it would be only just and right that the people of Germany could sort of understand who they’re doing business with,” Hammelburg stated.
Deborah Robinson has also spent a long time with this story. She is a freelance journalist who works in both Little Rock and Las Vegas, and has spent most of the last two years writing a book about the eight inmates.
“They were in a place where most of us will never go: knowing the day, the time, the place, and how they will die," Robinson said. "They have to go through something emotionally, spiritually, physically, and all of that, and I wanted to be able to tell that story.”
She has noticed the influx of out-of-town reporters, many of whom have likely never visited Arkansas before. She said she worries that they are likely to bring the values of their hometowns with them, which may hinder their ability to cover the story.
“Most of the reports that are going back out are saying, ‘What is Arkansas doing,’” she noted. “Most of the op-eds that are out there, most of the letters to the editors, most of the media coverage is anti-Arkansas on this issue.”
McLemore found that much of the coverage from outlets around the country is second-hand, relying on local organizations to provide the basis of their stories. That can make their coverage less complete than if they had someone at the scene, but he does not share Robinson’s fear of bias.
“That’s possible, but these are also trained professionals,” he said, “and you would hope, from the caliber of organizations we’re seeing come here, we’re seeing some of the best of the best at doing this.
“And I’m not a believer in widespread media bias, and out-to-get-everybody. I know that’s a common perception, especially now, but I think most of these reporters are trying to do an honest job to tell a complete story, and they’re going to try to do that here in Arkansas, too.”
Arkansas has received more national attention in the last two weeks than it had in years. Many news agencies tracked the legislative debate about concealed carry that ended with an exemption for Razorback Stadium and other college sporting events. Now others are shining a light on the execution process, including the clemency hearings for six of the death row inmates.
Hammelburg, for his part, thinks the attention on Arkansas is not likely to last. “Because of the rush, and the tight deadline, I think is kind of a one-off,” he explained. “But it wouldn’t surprise me if people really start paying very close attention to the state of Arkansas.”
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