AP photos
Audrey Seiler, Dru Sjodin, Elizabeth Smart
By
msnbc.com
updated 4/9/2004 3:07:44 PM ET 2004-04-09T19:07:44

It was a major breaking-news story. All the 24-hour cable channels had live pictures of Wisconsin authorities with their guns drawn, searching cars; police dogs sniffing for a suspect; breathless reporters anticipating coverage of a “big” story; and Internet news sites, publishing instant news reports stating “missing Wisconsin student found alive.” But it was all a hoax.

The case of Audrey Seiler, the Madison, Wisc., college student who lied about being abducted because “she wanted to be alone,” should be a red flag for the national news media. We need to re-examine our standards of news coverage. What makes a missing-person case national news? Is it the drama? Or do national news decision-makers believe the story affects all Americans?

The obvious answer to why missing-person stories are covered by news is convenience, viewers and money. It's easily gathered by national networks from their local TV affiliates. It's police scanner news, “breaking news stories” made popular by local stations and newspapers, garnering big ratings numbers and more advertising revenue for the media.

It seems that American viewers like to watch other people's pain. And if it's popular with consumers, the newsworthiness can always be argued by the media. We can always hide behind the veil that we're providing coverage of a story of interest to our viewers and readers.

What's the news value?
But realistically, what's the newsworthiness of missing-person stories? Sure they're tragic, and  interesting in a voyeuristic way. We get to watch other people suffering, put ourselves in their shoes. It has the touches of a reality show, even better if the apparently clean-cut family has skeletons in its closet. But where's the news value?

Let me state, the answer to the question if missing-person stories are news should be “no.” I don’t believe missing-people stories are worthy of national news coverage. Of course there are exceptions, but those cases should be held to a high standard and examined carefully before being covered.

National newsrooms should establish criteria, benchmarks of value that a missing-person story must meet before being broadcast. And that coverage should be racially fair and balanced.

I worked in local news before coming to MSNBC.com. When I started in the business, we didn’t report missing-person cases unless they were missing for a certain number of days, or there were many discussions among newsroom decision-makers about whether the case should be covered immediately. There were several reasons for this — in major cities there are hundreds of reported missing-person cases.  If newsrooms chose to, they could do nothing but missing-person stories.

These stories reported blindly have a high degree of uncertainty, as seen in the Seiler case. And finally, what's the news value of the story?

All news all the time
I was a freshman in college, interning at a local TV station in my hometown of St. Louis. Granted, back then news was slower. We had newscasts at noon, 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. There was one 24-hour cable newscast, and network news was where Americans turned to get their news.

Now we’re using microwave trucks, helicopters and satellite trucks more. We have three 24-hour cable news stations, and Internet news takes viewers anywhere in the world “live” instantly. But this is not a commentary about technology, even though technology contributes to the “wag-the-dog” mentality around this kind of coverage. This is about reporting.

The media have reported on many famous cases involving missing people that have ended tragically. And we've reported on many cases with happy endings, cases in which the missing person was found safe and sound. In those cases the police always thank the news media for their coverage.

I don’t know about my fellow journalists, but that always feels awkward to me. It never feels right for the media to be thanked for doing our job and to be singled out for “helping” in cases. It seems to me that the police and the public could come to expect our “help” in cases; if that happens, they could rightly ask, why aren't you covering each and every missing-person case? Local communities should put that sort of pressure on their local news media. It is local news’ job to inform their communities of news that have an impact on their towns, cities, and state.

Working to 'keep up'
Herbert Gans, sociologist, educator and author, studied the national news media for his book “Deciding What’s News.” In a 2003 article he wrote: “News consumers seek mainly to ‘keep up’ with events beyond their immediate environments. They pay closer attention to wars, disasters and major scandals than to politics. News corporations have become ever more desperate to attract readers and viewers, whose numbers have been dwindling for more than a generation (or else they have so spread out over print, broadcast and Internet sources that current ways of counting them are obsolete). News executives have consequently compelled journalists to cut back on political news, replacing it with ‘soft’ but often popular ‘service’ stories on health, lifestyles, family, and home.”

Then news becomes, as we like to say in the business, a “feed the monster” syndrome — we're “feeding” (reporting) on anything to satisfy “the monster” (ratings or ad revenue).

Many journalism professors have written about crime news and whether it's newsworthy. This debate is important to discuss in every newsroom and in journalism classrooms around the world. But some of my friends and colleagues say: “Why bother? You know that these are the times we are living in.”

If that is true, then I have a problem.

If a person of color is missing, does national news care?
The coverage of Dru Sjodin, the missing white North Dakota student, certainly could be news in that state. But why was it national news and if it was, why not cover the disappearance of Dena Marie Carter, a black Georgia college student, that happened at about the same time?

In 1991, Northwestern University associate professor Robert Entman did a study for the Human Relations Foundation of the Chicago Community Trust. It was called “Images of Blacks on Chicago's Local TV News Programs.” Entman, who specializes in communications and political science, found racial bias in local television's treatment of criminal suspects. His report suggests that TV stations encourage what researchers have called “modern racism” — the continued, though muted, antagonism between races. In their attempts to overcome traditional racism, stations actually worsen racial hostilities, the study concluded.

Entman's study said the way criminal suspects are covered increases the “general emotional hostility toward blacks.” The study also suggests that white suspects are portrayed as more human than their African-American counterparts.

Subliminal bias
When I look at national news' coverage of missing people, the same bias can be seen. Mostly, the cases of white missing persons are being covered, which conveys a not-quite-subliminal message that whites are more important than people of color.

Minority journalists and communities have fought hard to make sure stories are not exclusively about white people as the victims and minorities as the suspects. The media fall into the trap of covering crime news in which a white family’s plight seems to be more appalling than the minority family’s anguish. Yet we continue to see national news’ coverage of missing people that are nothing but a parade of missing white people (MWP).

Why aren't we covering missing people of color?  It seems that the national media is saying to people of color, “We don’t care if you are missing.” And wrongly or rightly, that sends an ominous message to minorities that the national news media are biased.

Two cases, two approaches
This message has been a problem of local news, something that concerned journalists have been speaking out against since I’ve been in the business. In local news, strong minority communities are able to express their concerns about coverage (or the lack of same) face-to-face with news management.

This was pointed out last year in the cases of Elizabeth Smart and Alexis Patterson, when the national media flocked to Salt Lake City en masse to cover the missing white girl but ignored the story of the missing black child in Milwaukee. 

For the most part in national news, people of color don’t have the opportunity to meet the gatekeepers face to face. Management is not as easy to get access to, and most people wouldn’t even know where to begin to contact these decision-makers.

So it’s more important for concerned national news journalists to speak out. And if national newsgatherers truly believe that missing-person stories are news, then blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and other people of color who are missing have to be covered, too.

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