http://www.mediachannel.org/wordpress/2007/07/02/media-coverage-of-high-profile-disappearances-faces-scrutiny/Media Coverage Of High-Profile Disappearances Faces Scrutiny
– By Laura Johnston
When Jaquis Cox vanished, Nancy Grace paid no attention. When Gloria Walker went missing, Greta Van Susteren never came.
But when Jessie Davis disappeared, the cable news divas leaped on the story.
It fit a narrative consistently covered in the national media – the suspicious disappearance of a young, attractive, white woman. Local TV stations and newspapers, too, devoted loads of space to the story.
She was nine months pregnant. She struggled in her home. Her 2-year-old son, left alone for more than a day, uttered haunting statements like, “Mommy’s in rug.” Her boyfriend, a married police officer, was a suspect who was eventually charged in her death.
For days, the saga twisted, with an unrelated newborn found on a Wooster doorstep and a marijuana garden unearthed by a search party.
“It’s so predictable, it’s embarrassing,” said Kelly McBride, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, a media studies organization. “With 24-hour cable news networks, followed up by the Internet product that updates every seven minutes to every hour, there is an appetite for the unfolding story, with incremental updates.”
With such stories, cable news ratings “go through the roof,” said WEWS Channel 5 News Director Steve Hyvonen, who worked for four years at MSNBC.
That’s big, since the three main cable news networks lost 8 percent of primetime viewers last year, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
“Crimes that are solved immediately don’t tend to make national news,” McBride said. “It tends to be the mystery. It plays on the fear.”
But it also depends on the victim. Some go missing, and no one notices Jaquis Cox, a black 13-year-old, went missing June 20 in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood.
No media seemed to notice.
Three days later, Cleveland City Council sent a news release, prompting local television last Sunday to cover the disappearance, said Councilwoman Sabra Pierce Scott, who helped with the search.
“They’re more concerned about white women and children than they are about black,” Scott said.
Jaquis came home that night. He said he was kidnapped, locked in a basement and assaulted, said police Lt. Thomas Stacho. Police are investigating.
Gloria Walker, a 46-year-old black grandmother, was last seen May 20, when she left her Cleveland home in a 1996 Lumina.
Her family, whose pleas never made national news, has been searching ever since.
Walker is one of nearly 51,000 missing American adults, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. Almost none garnered the household-name status of Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway and Chandra Levy.
“We’re all glad that Jessie got that kind of attention,” said Judy Martin, founder of Survivors/Victims of Tragedy, a Euclid organization that helps families who have lost loved ones through violent deaths. “But so should the next person – blue, green, purple, I don’t care.”
Thousands, if not millions, followed the search when Davis disappeared from her home June 14. The Stark County Sheriff’s Office resembled an RV camp, with satellite TV trucks, awnings and folding lawn chairs.
It’s not as simple as black and white.
Missing black women, such as Stepha Henry in South Florida and LaToyia Figueroa in Philadelphia, have been featured on cable news. But when Jennifer Kathleen Nielsen, a pregnant white woman, was found dead behind a North Carolina gas station on June 14 (the day before Davis was reported missing), cable news barely mentioned it.
In general, though, white women better fit the “damsel in distress” profiles that media believe sells, the Poynter Institute’s McBride said. She thinks it’s indefensible.
Most of the people running news organizations are white, she said. People are inherently prejudiced, presuming that if victims are not white, they are somehow involved in their own disappearance, perhaps by making themselves vulnerable. And news organizations assume the audience is white and middle class.
“We ignore huge numbers . . . of murders committed against marginalized people – prostitutes, drug addicts, minorities, gays,” said Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University. “When it happens to a white, attractive, middle-class woman who lives in the suburbs, it is very frightening because it’s taken personally.”
That threat, that negative fascination, Levin said, is key to understanding the intense coverage.
On a local level, it’s different, McBride said. Local news executives defend their coverage.
The Plain Dealer and Cleveland TV stations said they concentrated on the story simply because it was newsworthy.
The newspaper prominently covered the Davis story on its front page June 19, a day after hundreds of people had scoured Stark County for her.
Clearly, Davis had not run away, said Plain Dealer Managing Editor Tom O’Hara. Bleach was poured on the carpet, Davis’ comforter was missing, and her 2-year-old was wandering the house alone.
“It would be stupid not to cover this aggressively,” O’Hara said, adding that cable news’ interest made that even more apparent.
Myriad viewers identified with the story, said Rita Andolsen, acting news director at WKYC Channel 3.
The station began coverage June 15, the day Davis’ mother reported her missing, after receiving a request for help, Andolsen said. With thousands searching for Davis, it became a story of community support.
“If this were a book, a mystery novel, you probably wouldn’t believe it,” said Hyvonen, the news director at Channel 5.
The story, he said, would have been just as intriguing if Davis were Hispanic or black.
Reports of other missing people, such as Cox and Walker, depend on whether police treat the disappearance as a crime, Hyvonen said.
The Plain Dealer, too, takes its direction from how police treat missing people. Reporters must be cautious and gather enough information to know a crime has occurred.
“A lot of missing persons, as we know, ran away,” O’Hara said. “There could be a lot of non-newsworthy reasons that people are missing.”
But that’s where Survivors/Victims of Tragedy wants change. Martin envisions photos of missing people shown on local television two or three times a day so people could spot them.
“Having the picture shown is definitely hope,” she said. “A family should not have to fight so hard.”