Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Monday, May 09, 2005

media and society

-- media and society -- missing white female alert

Media blackout for this bride (, registration required) Cynthia Tucker Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published on: 05/08/05

A year ago yesterday, May 7, Stacy-Ann Sappleton took a taxi to Queens, N.Y., from LaGuardia, bound for the home of her future in-laws. She had flown in from Detroit to complete a few tasks for her planned September wedding.

She never made it. Her fiancé, Damion Blair, his parents and Sappleton's mother spent a frantic weekend searching before they learned of her tragic demise.

Never heard of her? Neither has most of America.

Like runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks, Sappleton was missing for three days. Like Wilbanks, Sappleton was young (26), middle class and planning a wedding.

Unlike Wilbanks, Sappleton's disappearance didn't receive 24-hour cable news coverage, complete with breathless speculation by celebrity pundits, or banner newspaper headlines. Unlike Wilbanks, Sappleton was black.

The frenzy surrounding Wilbanks' disappearance once again highlights a peculiar feature of early 21st-century American culture: a fixation on pretty, young, middle-class white women. While tens of thousands of American adults disappear every year — some eventually turn up, safe and sound; some are never heard from again; some are recovered as corpses — only a small sliver get the Wilbanks/Laci Peterson/Lori Hacking treatment.

After Sappleton's battered, bullet-riddled body was found in a trash bin in Queens, about five miles from the home of her future in-laws, her fiancé angrily refused to talk to reporters. "When she first disappeared, we tried to contact the media, and they wouldn't help us," Blair told The New York Times.

(Print and broadcast reporters from New York City and Canada — Sappleton lived in Ontario — covered her disappearance, but newspapers did not display the story prominently. There was little, if any, coverage from national news outlets.)

Heaven knows, my industry ought to come in for a heaping dose of criticism for the sensationalist coverage given to one small drama — the Wilbanks disappearance — without broader societal implications. But the fact is that the runaway bride soap opera, like the tragedies involving Peterson and Hacking, attracted loads of interest from readers and viewers.

As American news consumers, we are discriminating about the sort of victims worthy of our concern. Pretty, middle-class, young, white — yes; old, ugly, poor, black, brown — apparently not....

Missing white female alert
Why won't the media cover missing minority women?
By Douglas MacKinnon, press secretary to former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole from 1998 to 2003
Published May 8, 2005

Note to the news media--with an emphasis on the cable networks: Enough is enough.

Your continual focus on, and reporting of, missing, young, attractive white women not only demeans your profession but is a televised slap in the face to minority mothers and parents the nation over who search for their own missing children with little or no assistance or notice from anyone.

The latest missing woman to dominate the airtime of the cable networks was Jennifer Wilbanks, from Duluth, Ga. Like Dru Sjodin, Chandra Levy and Elizabeth Smart all before her, Wilbanks is young, white and attractive. Wilbanks, as it turned out, ran away of her own volition from her impending marriage. As a Maryland police official told me after Wilbanks turned up in New Mexico, "the media's non-stop focus on the possible abduction of Wilbanks forced the local officials and police departments to spend thousands of dollars they would not otherwise have spent."

Define racism. One could certainly make the argument that the cable networks that continually focus on these missing white women, to the virtual exclusion of minority women, are practicing a form of racism. The racism in this case, however, while predicated on color, does not concern itself with the color of one's skin. Rather, it is based on the color of money, ratings points and competition. Would an African-American woman who went missing days before her wedding receive the same (or any) coverage as that of Wilbanks? Not likely.

The cable networks, which can certainly be considered centers of journalism, are also business centers with a harsh bottom line. The ratings for the cable networks are generally measured in the hundreds of thousands of viewers rather than the millions of viewers the major networks attract. Therefore, cable stations are constantly on the lookout for any story that may spike and then hold the ratings. Stories like those of Wilbanks, Sjodin, Levy or Smart seem to fit those requirements. [...]

For all that I essentially agree with Mr MacKinnon on some points -- the news focus on missing white women can be extraordinarily obnoxious in the ways and intensity with which it occurs -- there is one point that he elides ... or rather, he seems to misplace responsibility.

[...] I have a number of friends at the cable networks (or at least I did), and I have spoken to some about this very subject. While all professed disgust with the underreporting of missing minority women and young adults, most were very uneasy with the thought of shining a spotlight on their own management to ascertain an answer. "Besides," one of them told me, "you've already figured it out. We showcase missing, young, white, attractive women because our research shows we get more viewers. It's about beating the competition and ad dollars."

Tragically, but not shockingly, in the spring of 2005, it seems the color of one's skin can determine the worth of that individual to some in the media. Journalism, as a profession, must be better than this.

Bold emphasis above added.

In this case, sadly enough, the news media is reactive. They're not determining the worth of these people to society; they're simply responding to a determination that society has already made. Young white women are more valuable, more newsworthy, when they go missing than others are. After all, if society had not already made this determination, then the ratings would not go up more when they cover this issue than when they cover other missing persons.

Compare and contrast:

Family faces weeklong wait for ID of bones
May 2, 2005

Crime Reporter
Chicago Sun-Times

The Far South Side site where skeletal remains were unearthed in recent days was quiet Sunday, with excavation done for now, but it could be another week before the Bradley family finds out whether the bones belong to either of their missing girls.

Tionda and Diamond Bradley, two young sisters from the Bronzeville neighborhood, disappeared in July 2001, touching off a worldwide manhunt. Because the unearthed remains, including teeth, are believed to belong to a girl, there's suspicion it could be one of the Bradley sisters.

"This is the closest scare,'' said Shelia Bradley-Smith, a great-aunt to Tionda and Diamond. "We're hopeful we can find them, but nobody is hopeful that they find their children dead. I do feel a little more anxious than usual.''

Smith said she spoke with the girls' mother, Tracey Bradley, over the weekend. Smith said her niece was distraught.

Meanwhile, investigators cautioned that there was not much to report about Thursday's discovery of the bones at 130th and South Indiana. A forensic expert is expected in Chicago this week to examine the bones, which appear to be those of an adolescent girl, a source said. It was also confirmed teeth were recovered from the remains and would be tested, as well....

One of the reasons this case is oddly noteworthy is simply because it has remained oddly noteworthy. Tionda and Diamond Bradley are just two of many young black girls that disappear each year. One of the reasons that they remained worthy of note is that they disappeared together, which is odd regardless of their race. Without that odd factor, they'd likely have faded completely from view. Even so, for all that there was a "world wide search" for the girls, there was scarcely the major brouhaha that ensued over Wilbanks' disappearance, despite the fact that there were two of them. Even locally, after a relatively brief flurry of news stories, they simply fell off the radar.

Meanwhile, in the past few months, according to Illinois Team Amber Alert, several other children have gone missing in Illinois, almost completely without notice.

The question is, to what extent do we think that the media merely reflect society, and to what extent do we think that the media should try to shape society? For all that the coverage seems misplaced, it seems both unfair and unwise to blame a money-making business for responding in ways that will enable it to make more money. The question of whether news coverage should be a money making operation or whether or not there should be some way of handling it as a social good will be left is another issue; that said, how on earth could that be done?

It may be, ultimately, that simply asking the question may help. The media may at some point decide that it should not look as though it's trying to decide who exactly the valuable members of society are, and that its coverage will become more evenhanded.

But until society itself stops asserting that these people are more valuable than those, it's not very likely.

Angelitos Negros
(written by: M. Alvarez Maciste / A. Eloy Blanco)

Pintor nacido en mi tierra,
Con el pincel extranjero,
Pintor que sigues el rumbo,
De tantos pintores viejos.

Siempre que pintas iglesias,
Pintas angelitos bellos,
Pero nunca te acordaste,
De pintar un ángel negro.

Pintor si pintas con amor,
¿por qué desprecias su color,
Si sabes que en el cielo,
También los quiere dios?

Pintor de santos de alcoba,
Si tienes alma en el cuerpo,
¿por qué al pintar en tus cuadros,
Te olvidaste de los negros?

Aunque la virgen sea blanca
Píntame angelitos negros,
Que también se van al cielo,
Todos los negritos buenos.

Posted by iain at 02:17 PM in category media and society