In the wake of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince's tragic suicide, the media narrative about her death was tragically familiar: she was bullied to death by mean girls and predatory boys. But the truth is much more complicated says Slate’s Emily Bazelon. Bazelon has investigated this story for months. She's interviewed one of the students accused of bullying - the first time any of the alleged bullies has spoken with the media. Bazelon explains how the media misreported this story and why it matters.
BOB GARFIELD: Phoebe Prince was 15 years old when she committed suicide in January of 2010. The story of her death is heartbreaking. She'd recently moved to Massachusetts from Ireland. Her parents were separating. She struggled with depression. And at her new school, South Hadley High, she was quickly involved in two contentious romantic triangles. Some students, mostly girls, picked on Phoebe. They ridiculed her accent and called her vile names. Then one day she ended her life.
In the wake of Phoebe’s death, the media narrative quickly coalesced into a tragically familiar story. Named “The South Hadley Six” by the press it was the mean girls and predatory boys who had bullied Phoebe to death.
But the truth is much more complicated, says Slate’s Emily Bazelon. She believes the media narrative followed simplistic notions about bullying and its toll at the expense ultimately of the truth. Bazelon says she decided to investigate this story herself after reading some of the early reports about what had happened in South Hadley.
EMILY BAZELON: What got me interested in this case was I was reading the early media accounts, too, and I had just started working on a series for Slate about bullying, and I thought, God, what is – this school sounds horrible and these kids sound so atrocious. What happened?
So I went up to the school and I started saying to the kids, wow, you must feel so relieved that these six kids are gone and you don't have to deal with them any more because they were clearly terrorizing people. And every kid I talked to kind of looked at me funny and said, no, that’s just not what they were like. There was a lot of girl drama going on surrounding Phoebe and these boys and their girlfriends, but it wasn't like that. And the kids who were charged were not kids who we were in any way afraid of. And that made me think there was really a problem in the reporting.
BOB GARFIELD: The story might have petered out, but then the local district attorney decided to file felony charges against the six kids who had been implicated in Phoebe’s suicide. Do you have any sense that the district attorney was herself influenced by the media attention the case had brought?
EMILY BAZELON: I think there was a kind of push-and-pull effect where the notoriety of the case was part of what prompted the police and the district attorney to investigate. And then once they decided to press charges, the story had a second life in the media.
The D.A., when she held a press conference and announced the charges, talked about a relentless three-month campaign of bullying. And she presented the most vicious possible portrayal of these kids and their role, and then that was it. There was no other story because the defense in a case like this really has their hands tied and can't talk in the same way to the media. So the prosecution’s version was the only one that we heard for several months.
BOB GARFIELD: As I looked at the coverage, not in Slate but elsewhere, I noticed that all of the six defendants, five of whom were juveniles, were named and had their pictures splashed across the headlines. And I'm not used to seeing that because ordinarily those identities are hidden from public view. What happened here?
EMILY BAZELON: You’re right. We're not used to seeing that. And what happened was that the district attorney made a very unusual decision. Even among the three kids who were actually charged as juveniles, whose names normally would not have been public, she made the argument in the indictment that these kids had put Phoebe at risk of serious injury, serious bodily harm, and that as a result, it was acceptable to publish their names.
This very rarely happens in juvenile cases. And in this case, given the level of media attention, it had a really devastating effect on those three kids.
BOB GARFIELD: You managed to score an interview with one of the kids involved in the case, Flannery Mullins. The others had refused across the board to talk to the press. What did you learn from that conversation?
EMILY BAZELON: I learned how hard it is to be at the center of a media maelstrom like this, where the problem is – it’s about proportional punishment, I think. It’s not that Flannery had never met Phoebe, had nothing at all to do with this. It’s that Flannery saw herself as involved in a conflict with Phoebe over a boy.
So for her to hear over and over again that she was at fault for Phoebe Prince’s suicide, when she hadn't really spoken to Phoebe directly and had had no involvement with her in the ten days or so before Phoebe’s death, that’s a really hard pill to swallow.
And yet, it was so much the dominant narrative that I think Flannery feels uncertain that she'll ever really be able to shake that. And so she has to figure out how to deal with that.
BOB GARFIELD: You spoke to her mother about that, and here’s what it sounded like:
JENNIFER MULLINS: Mid-January to - and all of February was just brutal for Flannery. She would be in the house trapped basically because there would be reporters outside banging on the door.
EMILY BAZELON: Wow.
JENNIFER MULLINS: And so she said, Mom, I have to go to work, I don't know what to do. I can't get out. They won't leave. And this happened over and over and over.
EMILY BAZELON: Flannery’s mother quit her job because she felt like she had to protect her daughter.
BOB GARFIELD: This story was very complex and very nuanced. It had to do with Phoebe’s own mental state. It had to do with, in some ways, with her own conduct in addition to cruelties that she was victimized by, none of which nuance came out.
On the other hand, the press was dealing with a tragic suicide, it was dealing with an issue that is very much au courant, and it was dealing with a prosecution on felony charges by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. So can you blame the press for, you know, perhaps oversimplifying the facts in the larger good of calling attention to the issue itself?
EMILY BAZELON: You know, I think the problem was whether the press’ take on this was driven by real reporting or by simply repeating what they were being told by the prosecution. And you’re right, this is a really nuanced story. It’s hard to get nuanced stories right. But there were real people whose actual lives were on the line in terms of these teenagers and the effect the criminal charges were having on them.
And particularly when we're talking about teenagers - they're not adults - there are ways in which we try to shield them. The law does that. You know, we've decided that teenagers can't be subject to the death penalty and they can't be subject to life without parole because they're not fully neurologically developed. They're not the same as adults. And yet all of those lessons seemed to be just thrown out the window in this case.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, you took some risk, in doing these pieces, as being perceived yourself as like some sort of apologist for bullies. Tell me why that would be a grotesque mischaracterization.
EMILY BAZELON: The idea that we have to scapegoat six kids and saddle them with these serious felony charges, which they faced for a year, in order to have the serious conversation we need to have about this problem, I just can't really accept that, because they are bearing the brunt of responsibility and punishment in a way that seems to me to be vastly out of proportion to what they actually did.
And it’s not a question of excusing the bad behavior here but of oversimplifying to the point that the story just doesn't get told in a way that’s true, and in the process creates a second set of victims here.
BOB GARFIELD: Emily, thank you very much.
EMILY BAZELON: Thanks so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Emily Bazelon is a senior editor at Slate. You can go to Slate to read her full series on this case and to hear her exclusive interview with one of the alleged bullies, Flannery Mullins, and her mother, Jennifer.