Natalee Holloway, Lori Hacking, Laci Peterson. The list goes on and on and on.
When pretty, young women -- especially white ones -- are killed or disappear, media storms often follow. There is no polite way to say it, and it is a fact of television news. Media and social critics call the wall-to-wall coverage that seems to swirl around these events, "Missing White Woman Syndrome."
That was the phrase invoked by Sheri Parks, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, during our interview yesterday. The phenomenon is characterized by critics as a short and cynical equation: Pretty, white damsels in distress draw viewers; missing women who are black, Latino, Asian, old, fat, or ugly do not.
I think the critics are a lot right. And I think they are a little wrong.
People in the news business, in my professional experience of nearly 30 years, are like people in every profession. They wrestle with questions of right and wrong, fairness and accuracy, perception and reality. Some are good at it. Some aren't.
I've never, not even once, seen a story spiked because the victim was not attractive enough or the wrong race. But I've seen plenty of stories fall by the wayside, pushed down and out of the show, because a consensus develops that says, "You know, I don't think our viewers are very interested in this case."
Is that racism or realism? We can't cover every murder, but ignoring them all or reporting just statistics seems irresponsible. So how should we decide whose life or loss is covered?