Natalee Holloway and LaToyia Figueroa both disappeared this summer. Holloway, a 17-year-old white female from Alabama, who is still missing, garnered widespread media attention.
Police found Figueroa’s, a 24-year-old pregnant black woman from Philadelphia, remains in August. Her story received national media coverage, but only after web loggers pressured cable networks to pay more attention to her disappearance.
This disparity in coverage is one of many flaws that plagues and threatens the survival of journalism today. Journalism has nothing to fear – not even buyouts or major staff cuts – but itself.
Biased coverage is a weakness that jeopardizes the integrity of the profession. Another apparent media flaw is poor news judgment.
With expanding technology, news has become more easily accessible. Newspaper readership steadily declines as more readers get their news from the Internet or from 24-hour cable news networks. This culture has affected journalism negatively. There is much more of a focus on news that will bring in larger audiences and larger ratings.
Daniel Chomsky, a Temple professor of political science who teaches a course in media and the political process said, “Media behavior reflects the dominance of corporations as owners of media institutions and serves their interests, to make profits and preserve corporate power.”
In the case of the missing women, it was evident that the media made a distinction on which woman’s life was more important – not only on the basis of race, but on a calculation of whose story would boost ratings. Would the story of a young, attractive white female bring in more viewers, or would the story of a black, unwed, soon to be mother?
Whether it is appropriate to sensationalize missing person stories should be the real question. It would be impossible to give fair and equal coverage to all disappearances; therefore, should they be covered at all by mainstream media?
Moreover, with a renewed news culture of sensationalism – a familiar culture that dates back to the early 19th century with yellow journalism – news judgment is too often influenced by ratings.
When the media promotes racial and social biases and sensationalizes news, its credibility is questioned. According to Chomsky, this type of coverage clouds the importance of other important issues that deserve attention.
“The disappearance was a personal tragedy for the [Holloway] family, but the saturation coverage of a single, sensational story like this one leaves citizens with an exaggerated fear of crime and obscures more central concerns, for example the persistence of stark social, economic and political inequality that briefly came into view in the wake of Hurricane Katrina,” Chomsky said.
In addition, crucial stories such as the ongoing genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan or the severe famine in Niger, remain largely uncovered by mainstream media.
However, everyone is made aware of Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher’s recent wedding.
Society remains uninformed of stories that are fundamental to its development, but are informed of stories that have no bearing on its immediate future.
Though recent announcements of large staff cuts and buyouts have shaken up the profession, journalism should be less worried about the business aspect’s effect on its future. The biggest and most ominous threat to the profession’s survival is itself.
Charmie R. Snetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.