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something to think about

Why do you think the Laci Peterson story became such a major news item?

Women go missing every day, some of them pregnant. Why this story? Why this woman and not Evelyn Hernandez , who went missing in last May?

...Evelyn Hernandez of San Francisco, [who] vanished last May 1 with her 5-year-old son, a week before she was to deliver a baby boy. Her torso was found in the bay three months later and identified, while her son remains missing. No arrests have been made...friends and family tried repeatedly to get Hernandez's case featured on "America's Most Wanted" but were rejected because no warrant had been issued for a suspect. But, [Evelyn's friend] Damy said, the show did a story on Laci Peterson although no suspects had been named in that case either

I wondered the same thing about the Elizabeth Smart case. How many kids go missing per week in America? Why does one particular girl grab the headlines?

Andrea Yates killed her children, a story which was covered in all forms of media for weeks on end. Recently, a couple strangled and then beheaded their three children and it only made a couple of major news web sites and was gone in a flash (when I Googled this story most of the links that came up were dead) .

Why the disparity? How does one story get picked up by every media outlet and another rates only a small box on page 20 of the local paper? If publicity helped find Elizabeth Smart's kidnapper, then why not give the same amount of publicity to every missing child or every unsolved murder?

It's also interesting to note the differing views on similar situations. The Van Damns befriended a strange man and brought him into their home even though they had children. They have been villified by both the press and public for doing so. Many people laid the blame for Danielle Van Damn's kidnapping and murder squarely on the shoulder's of the parents.

The Smarts also befriended a strange man and brought him into their home. No one blames them for that. No one made them defend that decision.

I don't have any answers. I'm curious on your take. Consider this research for something I am working on.


I have always wondered the same thing...and like you, I have no ideas and no answers.

I'll be honest, I think it's how these families deal with the press. I think there is a groundswell by the people in the area, which gets it constantly pushed and pushed in the local media. The national media sees how much play it's getting locally and one or two pick it up nationally. If the press gets the feeling it's running well, well then wehave the half hour specials, Barbara Walters interviewing the families, etc...

I too often wonder about this.
My suspicion (no evidence) is someone
connected to the case has a friend or
family member involved in media
society. And it takes on a meme quality.
As I said I have ZERO evidence it's just a gut feeling

It does have a lot to do with how public the families are about the whole thing. In some (not all) cases that has to do with how much influence the family has in the community. A rich and prominent family gets a lot more attention and can also mobilize more people to print and distribute flyers, talk to the press, set up command posts, and organize search teams.

A lot of it might just be a copycat thing, too. The competition between major national news outlets is fierce. If one of them covers a story, the rest feel compelled to cover it as well, because they dont want to look like they got left out or weren't on top of things. Before you know it, they're competing over who can give the story the most coverage, and we viewers are getting 24 hour coverage of a story that probably warrants 30 seconds.

Imagine this scenario: Over at Fox News Channel, they're looking for a "filler" story. "hey boss- somebody kidnapped a little girl in California. wanna run that?" "sure..run it".

1 hour later at CNN: "Hey! What's this on Fox about the California kidnapping??? Why dont we have somebody on that??? Get a crew out there NOW!"

Ditto at ABC, NBC, CBS. Now it's a national crisis.

This is not a hard and fast rule, but I would say that a lot has to do with the socioeconomic status of the victim/ victim's families.

I think Dave hit it square on

I think the media is just trying to put together good stories, and they don't call them stories for nothin'! They assume their audience is middle-class, white TV-watchers, and these people react emotionally to, or are titillated by, some things more than others. In particular they are easily touched by middle-class girls in distress (especially blonds), pregnant women in distress, and moms in distress. If sexual deviation of some kind is involved it always helps. Also, family photos and movies showing middle-class normality are usefull (Look out! It could happen to your family too!).

As for Andrea Yates, the media was able to create a story by painting a picture of Andrea as an abused and frightened woman. This is always a better story than run-of-the-mill psychosis.

The first and foremost thing to remember is that the media is not about public awareness, goodness, or providing information: they are about ratings and money.

The Laci Peterson case probably had a better 'sticky' factor or 'grab' factor than the other case at the same time. 'Grab' factor = ratings. Ratings = more advertisers. More advertiser = more money for that particular news media.

It may or may not have anything to do with socioeconomic status of the victim or the perpertrator. In all reality, if they (the media) had found the Hernandez case to be sexier, 'stickier', and a better sell, we would've heard about that case and the Laci Peterson case would've dropped off the radar.

But I suspect the Peterson case had a lot of grab factor: young, beautiful, very pregnant woman. Supposedly 'loving', handsome husband, disappeared on a day that is synonymous with Family. Very good sell.

The bottom line with media is ... the bottom line.

I personally didn't get the impression that the Smarts weren't being raked across the coals for their actions. I think they were idiots. I know everyone I talk to thinks so too.

This is a huge part of why I can't stand to watch, or listen, or read the news for the most part. It's all about money - what can be put in the headline or teaser that will perk up the ears of the majority of the demographic. It's NOT about truth or fairness in reporting; it's about getting people to part with their cash. If a victim's status in ANY way is not 100% acceptable to the majority of the perceived demographic of the medium, no way will his or her story make the front page, not with a sympathic spin at least. Hernandez had too many strikes against her for a mainstream paper to risk the story: hispanic, a single mother with yet another baby on the way, not wealthy. The only moral her story could conclude with in a mainstream daily is "well, that's what you get". Horrifying, insulting, and not likely to change any time soon. Pisses me right off.

Short comments on the two situations you mentioned:

1) The husband was the suspect we "loved to hate" despite the fact that the police didn't officially name him as a suspect.

2) The Van Damms were swingers, the Smarts were Mormons. While they were equally stupid, it is easier to blame the Van Damms for their perceived selfish behavior putting their daughter in danger, than it is the Smarts, who were apparently trying to help out a homeless guy with some handyman work.

I think some of the factors (at least with the disappearances) can be chalked up to extraneous circumstances.

Laci Peterson disappeared Christmas Eve, whereas Evelyn Hernandez disappeared May 1st. It's not a stretch to think that the timing may have had some effect.

Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped in front of her sister, wasn't she?. Most kids that go missing don't have the same circumstance. In fact, most kids that go 'missing' don't go missing at all. I do volunteer search and rescue work with my county sheriff's department. Many of the SAR deputies won't call us in for missing kids unless they've been gone for a day or more, unless there are firm reasons to think the kid is in trouble or has been snatched.

Hence, I think a lot of it also has to do with what the initial reaction of the local law enforcement is. Typically (speaking from my experience), the news agencies are notified by the law enforcement people, not the family. It's not out of the realm of possibility that how much priority the news story gets is related to the amount of searchers out looking for the missing.

It seems likely that when the news personnel return to the station and their news desk manager asks them what was going on out at the search base the answer this guy gives could make a world of difference. Put yourself in the desk manager's shoes. The reporter you sent out there says that county SAR has about twenty people, four dogs and some trucks with a helicopter on standby. Is that a big story? What happens if you have 100-150 searchers, 20 dogs, a fleet of trucks and two helicopters because the sheriff's department called the nearest two or three counties for support? Obviously, that's news.

I've seen searches go both ways on the same level of information. When they page us to come to a search, they've no idea what they're actually going to get, and I think that has an effect on the newspeople.

Another (probably lesser) effect could be how the news crews interact with the searchers. If the reporters and the seachers have any conflict or confusion, that probably affects the amount of coverage.

But, that of course only deals with the initial hours of the search. A lot of the things I've seen mentioned (regarding family and news media) seem more like the outcome after the search seems ineffective or stalling. That threshold is, of course, different for each family and each search.

Your comments til now missed one, IMO important, point, it's very much a question of timing. When something "big" occurs, such a story will get less attention than in the middle of the summer when the hottest local news are the Bingo results. Also it's extremely helpful when there is an angle on which you can get a grip to the story. Either one of the included people is a celebrity or a relative to one, or is really good or ugly looking or belongs to a group others are interested in.

i've heard two theories...

1. the United States has historically been obsessed with protecting the image of the pure, white, helpless woman and the present is no difference.

2. that the audience they're playing to is actually emasculated men who have a Rescue Fantasy about saving these women.

(these are not my personal theories, i just found them interesting)

don't forget that modesto, ca is also where chandra levy was from, as well as the yosemite hikers. so the producers are thinking that either this small, honest town simply can't catch a break, or else there may be something more to it than coincidence, much like the "kennedy curse" has been played up in the media.

additionally i'm sure it helps when there is some sort of suggestion of scandal, ie:

  • an involved party is famous (condit, oj)
  • an involved party has questionable morals (van damms)
  • an involved party behaves suspiciously (scott peterson, oj, ramseys)
  • there is an eyewitness and the resolution is somehow still not quick (smarts)
  • the relatives of the guilty party support her despite what she did (yates)

in all of these cases there is the appearance of "more than meets the eye". we figure that any man whose wife killed their kids would turn against her immediately, because there is no possible justification for that; the fact that he didn't creeps us out and makes us wonder if he is a) involved b) did something to put his wife in that position. similarly, any husband whose very pregnant wife disappears should cooperate fully with the cops, and if he doesn't, we wonder if he isn't guilty himself.

it all makes for a much more interesting angle than the norm, which is that something horrible happens and the whole family is devastated and behaves that way in public 100% of the time. the familial intrigue becomes the real story, with the actual crime only incidental.

the country loves a good soap opera.

The truth may even be worse than the above theories. I think part of what played into the Peterson murders were physical looks. Simply put, because Laci Peterson was a beautiful woman, she gets all the play while the ugly victims get buried in the news. I don't think there's any one singular factor, but this was certainly ONE of them.

Need any proof, put an ugly ass female anchor front and center on the news network and watch the ratings crash through the floor. And that's the way it is.

That's why I despise feminists. They all go into bitch-mode because the prosecutors had the gall to treat a fetus as a human being and charge Scottie boy for that murder as well, while the discriminatory bias in the news blows right past them.

it's us. we define what gets published by what we watch or read or listen to. what advertised products we buy. whatever causes us to select one channel or media over another is not as important as the fact that we do make selections. if audiences were willing to pay (in any meaningful way) for better reporting, more balanced worldviews or more objective news, someone would provide it.

Actually I believe there was quite a lot of comment in the Salt Lake City area about the Smarts (both parents) having been unbelievably stupid and naive, and failing to take the most elementary steps to protect their kids.

The extent to which the national media failed to pick up on this has a lot to do I think with stupidity and naivety being given a pass, whereas 'swinging' was seen as being sinful and thus worthy of amplified public censure.

Compromising your kids' safety in your search for personal gratification thus has rich ingredients for a morality play, the very essence of something capable of being sensationalised, red meat to the press, whereas straight stupidity with foolish but high-minded motives is seen as no more than a banal tragedy, with few lessons for the rest of society.

Which is maybe what the Smart case was, no more and no less.

Another aspect is that people who neglect their kids through their own wickedness, pursuit of their own desires, etc., are felt to be capable of reform and therefore worth shouting at. People who are led into such ghastly errors as the Smarts' through stupidity and simple-minded piety, on the other hand... Well let's say neither their stupidity nor their pious beliefs are liable to change.

There is a parallel here with the way 'anti-war' crowd tends to rant away at democracies (perceived as capable of being influenced) yet rarely devotes much if any energy to criticizing regimes whose visibly much worse repressiveness is perceived as unalterable.

It's just not as much much fun ranting at a brick wall.

Anyone remember Chandra Levy? Yeah, 9/11 sort of pushed her aside (not before Condit was too). News is entertainment, despite Rather/Conkrite/etc. holding up a holy grail. They push whatever will sell.

Amazing how we rarely heard about dog maulings in the SF Bay area, then there was a rash of them. Yeah, right...

Race, class, appearance: white, middle class, attractive.


Not quibbling with any of your points....just one of the facts, Michele. There's never been anything that points to the Van Dams inviting Westerfield into their home.

You pose a difficult question. There are so many excellent theories noted here, and they all have valid points. I think it's a combination of a lot of different things, but in particular, the old adage that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. It's the families that are the most vocal AND the most "connected" that manage toget their stories out there and keep them in the headlines.

I had never heard about the Hernandez case before you posted it here. It probably never made it that far across the country. I do recall Scott's parents referring to it vaguely when he was finally taken into custody.

We had an 8 year old child disappear into thin air just about exactly a year ago in Milwaukee. Her name is Alexis Patterson. There was a pretty big seach effort locally at first. They did manage to get some national coverage, and eventually even got the story on America's Most Wanted, but it's been pretty much forgottern about since then. But the sweet-faced little girl with the braids and the engaging smile is still missing. Her family was interviewed after Elisabeth's reunion, and they are still looking for the answers and holding out hope.

It pains me to say this, but I agree that there appears to be a racial/socio-economic/locality aspect to these things as well.

While Elizabeth Smart is a fair-haired, white child from a well-to-do family living out West, Alexis Patterson is a black child from a poor family living in the central city in a Midwestern state. She's not near as glitzy, but she doesn't deserve our attention any less.

Don't forget that Susan Smith initially said she was carjacked by a black man, and went on TV appealing for her kids to be returned. I don't remember if the case received much national exposure before the bodies were discovered.

Actually, that makes me think of something.

The cases you've mentioned that got national exposure have one thing in common: complicity---or perceived complicity---with the families of the victims. That's the really interesting thing about them. Now, sometimes the cops talk to people, and something doesn't smell right. There's no evidence, exactly, but people change their stories, or are nervous, or otherwise give an indication that they're not being on the level.

The cops mutter among themselves, and the reporters overhear. Or maybe the cops tell the reporters something like that is suspected, "off the record". The reporters don't come right out and report this, but it's like blood in the water.
That really starts the feeding frenzy.

From a press point of view... I think it's timing.

Example: Laci Peterson, it's Christmastime, she's attractive... the story runs, generates a public outcry. A similar story runs a little later and an editor buries it, worrying that the public will go "oh no, not this tired topic again"

Shitty. Yes.

My job didn't want to hear about my troubles with an-overzealous CPS. A similar story here in the Poconos happened a month after our case closed... and it ran all over and made the public livid, and ready to stone a caseworker on sight.

Timing, I suppose.

I suspect it's because these events aren't news, they're entertainment. Kidnapping or murder are horrible crimes. For the victim, family and friends struck by tragedy these events are very important, but they don't have an impact on anyone outside that circle. We are all somewhat diminished by these events, but that's not why they get airtime.

Serial crimes are, of course, a very different matter. If there is a rash of breaking and entering in my neighborhood, that's news. (Sad to say, I had to hear about it from a cop rather than the newspaper.)

Another aspect must be the willingness of the loved ones to go on camera and 'share their pain'. When tragedy has struck my life, the last thing I would have wanted to do was become a human interest item. In contrast, at the moment Mrs Yates was being sentenced her husband was in a TV studio being interviewed about how much he supported her. This kind of access extends the shelf life of a 'news' story.

This is one big advantage that blogging has over traditional media: when there is no news, we can shut up. TV and newspapers don't have that option, so if there's nothing else to say, TV news tends to fill it with bad things happening to attractive people.

My brother said they were getting so much buzz because the Peterson case was "picture perfect". Occasionaly my brother says inteligent things.

Why picture perfect press? The media are bastards that way, I am rethinking my career as a media head.

Lotsa factors: what else is going on at the time (e.g. Iraq war or a slow news month); how photogenic the victims were; what race the victims were; how bizarre the crime was; how famous the perpetrator was (e.g., O.J.); whether something about the crime illustrates a currently hot topic and can be used to point out the dangers of trend X, Y, or Z....