Sunday, July 31, 2005

national media and beaten horses

According to some people, it seems the media (& other right thinkin' people) are pissed that the bleeding heart libruls have forced them to cover the Latoyia Figeuroa disappearance when, according to one commenter, they clearly don't think the case worthy of any attention and resent wasting their time on it. Attractive scholarship students deserve hours of daily coverage, people who've made errors in judgment and/or aren't "attractive" can 'naff off, especially if they're dumb enough to live in the city.

I had no idea my initial suggestion that the local media have a responsibility to the community they serve to report the news was such a demanding and inappropriate one. I always thought the news would include reporting on cases of missing persons being investigated by the police. Apparently that idea is a novel concept supported only by "bed-wetting liberals" (this may explain why the national media was so slow on the uptake in reporting about the DSM and other critical political issues).

I don't know about you, but I think the media (especially the national TV media) have this tendency to beat the tar out of almost every "special/human interest" type story they cover. It annoys me to the point that I have actually gone through extended periods avoiding TV news programming. I can't be the only one who was practically shell-shocked by the round-the-clock coverage when JFK, Jr died in a plane crash and the extensive coverage of some of the anniversaries of the event (the same with Princess Diana's death). Yes, both people were well known public figures who had tragic deaths, but the extensive coverage was bordering on obscene. The coverage provided for some murders, some missing persons & some court cases (& I admit I loved Michael Jackson Puppet Theater and damn near peed myself at Dan Abrams coverage of Jackson's chimp doing housework) has become obnoxious to the point that I have flashbacks to the commercial for the 48 volume Time-Life series "The Grenada Experience".

Do I expect Latoyia Figueroa's disappearance to get the same coverage as Natalee Holloway's disappearance is getting? No, I don't - but then I don't expect Natalee Holloway's disappearance to be quite so overblown in the media. Both stories are compelling in their own right. Natalee disappeared the night before her return from a vaction to an island with a very low crime rate; the facts that she has a scholarship to UAB, she is pretty and her family was affluent enough for her to be able to afford such a trip for graduating from high school are not what make her story compelling. Other items that (legitimately) keep our interest include the extraordinary work and measures donated by Texas EquuSearch, the Aruban/Dutch Legal system (which is so very alien to Americans), and the fact that 3 people are highly suspected of involvement in her disappearance and yet no forensic evidence has been found to date (or acknowledged publically as of yet). Beth Holloway Twitty (Natalee's mother) has handled the stress of having no idea what's happened to her daughter while being away from home and facing the constant glare of the media exceptionally well; she is well spoken with a vulnerability to which everyone can relate combined with a strength that few of us think we could muster in a similar situation. People want a happy ending or, if not a happy ending, some concrete answers because Natalee's family deserves it and if anyone can will that to happen, Beth Twitty must be that person.

In contrast, Latoyia Figueroa is not a scholarship student who disappeared from a vaction paradise. She is a waitress who was a teen mother and is expecting her second child with a man who is neither her husband nor the father of her first child. She was raised in parts of a Philadelphia that are not gentrified or chic and neither her family nor friends are particularly well spoken. As an expectant mother, she is in a population that is twice as likely to be the victim of homicide as other women (regardless of age, race or socioeconomic background). None of this makes her any less valuable a human being than Natalee Holloway, Laci Peterson or any other missing person. She has vanished and nobody seems to have any clue as to where she could be. Everyone who knows her (except maybe her boyfriend) thinks for her to just disappear without a trace like this is completely out of character. The consensus is that if she were to just want to lay low because of problems with her boyfriend or current life stress, she would not remain out of touch with her 7 year old daughter.

Under normal circumstances I agree that Latoyia's case is not one that warrants national media coverage. It's unlikely she is outside the local geographic region and/or that someone who has information on her whereabouts would be reached by national coverage instead of via local coverage. The reason Philly area bloggers picked up on Latoyia's story and asked for additional coverage is because even the local coverage was minimal. The Philadelphia Daily News picked it up, it's sister paper the Philaldelphia Inquirer (which has the widest readership in the metro area) did not until after the national news media got involved. To say this is unacceptable is an understatement. The reason some bloggers suggested flooding national news outlets about the story is because Latoyia's disappearance shortly after some bloggers and some news outlets covered stories about the disproportionate coverage of affluent white women and pointed to Tamika Huston's disappearance a year prior to Natalee Holloway's as an example (Huston's aunt is a PR professional who did all she could to get some attention when the case was fresh but had little success). Sadly, Paris Hilton's missing dog got more media coverage than most missing people do (as it turned out, Hilton had just forgotten she'd left the dog with her grandparents).

The truth is, whether intentional or not, even the media has admitted that there seems to be an inordinate & disproportionate media fixation on "the white women"; even NPR has made hay of it (On The Media - White Noise & WWWA). The argument that's been put forward by the media is that the pretty, affluent, white women get the ratings and those ratings translate into cash. It's also been said that those pretty affluent, white women are the ones we can relate to and that's why they have such a draw and yet, people have commented on blogs and BBS threads that they're not too happy about what appears to be a bias in reporting. I believe I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: I can no more relate to Natalee Holloway than I can to Latoyia Figueroa. I can't relate to their lives, or the lives of their family & friends; what I can relate to is the fear, pain and anguish their family and friends are going through. Furthermore, even if reporting on missing people of color doesn't bring in as high ratings as reporting on the missing du jour, what is it that necessitates the stories be mutually exclusive? Is there some rule that you can only report on one missing person at at time? Good heavens, whatever will we do if there are two missing white women competing for media attention? What criteria will be used to determine which is the bigger ratings grabber and therefor more worth of attention? Is it truly wasteful to mention another compelling case when you already have the captive audience waiting with baited breath for you to announce there is no new information in the case célèbre?

For better or worse, timing is what made bloggers turn to national media and hopefully the fact that people are pissed off enough to fight about it will make both local and national media put more consideration into their coverage of public interest stories and the news.

UPDATE (9:00 PM ET): Dateline NBC will be covering the topic of which missing person cases are covered and which are not next Friday night (including coverage of Tamika Huston).

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