Reporting the News:
From Daily Journals to Dangerous Duty
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
All about the color of coverage
By MICHELLE FERRIER | News-Journal Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH — I can quickly recall their faces — Jessica Lunsford, Sarah Lunde, Natalee Holloway, Jennifer Wilbanks.
They are the recent faces of the missing — stories of children abducted and murdered, a bride missing before a wedding, a teen disappears during an Aruba trip.
What these pictures also have in common are that they are all white females.
Critics are saying that media coverage ignores minorities and men who disappear. They suggest that blond-haired, white females, particularly those that are good-looking, get media attention versus the men and minorities and ordinary-looking folks that go missing every day.
Media outlets make the choices about who gets coverage and who doesn’t. They argue that these decisions are more a matter of routine—what is newsworthy — than any inherent biases in the newsroom.
What makes a story newsworthy? Six criteria are used by the news media:
* Timeliness: What happens today is more important than what happened in the past;
* Proximity: What happens nearby is more important than what is happening far away;
* Prominence: Those with name recognition, position and status, are more important;
* Unusualness: The out-of-the-ordinary is more important than things that happen all the time;
* Consequence: The potential impact of a story on the reading audience;
* Human interest: Often called soft news, human interest focuses on readers’ fascination with other people.
Newsworthiness can be one of the above or a combination of these factors that heightens the story’s value.
But what is newsworthy is also influenced by a set of subjective decisions, made by cops reporters on the scene of a crime, editors determining what readers want or need to know, available photographs or art, the “news hole” or space for stories in the newspaper, and deadline, among other things.
To say that such a process is objective suggests that humans aren’t involved. That’s like saying there’s an objective and open process for presidential elections . . . it depends upon your point of view.
Perhaps that’s the problem with news — the media doesn’t know how to handle the routine, everyday occurrences that are indicative of a larger pattern of crime or neglect. Subtle changes in the world around us are more difficult to report based on our news criteria, but don’t make them any less important as topics.
But journalism and journalists are missing the mark in this case. In a recent Associated Press story, Dori Maynard, president of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, said: “In terms of giving citizens the information they need, I think we’re failing because we’re not giving an accurate portrayal of the world around them.”
And here I was blithely thinking that I was safer than most, as would young black children and men watching the news.
Other critics say that besides race, class, sexuality and ageism are other factors. If journalists — consciously or unconsciously — expect men and minorities to be crime victims, Maynard said, few will consider it newsworthy if that actually happens.
News is a point of view, and sometimes a blurry one. Diversity in the newsroom — and in media coverage — makes for a better product and a more accurate view of the world.