Home > Uncategorized > It’s Only a Local Murder. Why All the Coverage?

It’s Only a Local Murder. Why All the Coverage?

-first posted at RTDNA.org on September 22, 2009

I imagine this blog’s going to get some people complaining I don’t know what real news is.  But that’s the reason I’m writing it now.  I’ve had this one in the back of my mind for some time—longer than I’ve been writing this RTNDA Chairman’s blog—and I was just waiting for the right time to release it. The right time seemed to roll around once all of us in the news business decided that the apparent murder of a 24-year-old graduate student in New Haven, Connecticut was the biggest story in the country.

Now, don’t get me wrong coming out of the gate. I’ll be the first to say Annie Le’s death is incredibly tragic.  As a father with a daughter at a New England college now, I can’t imagine the pain the Le family is going through.  Likewise, the story is a big one in New Haven and on the Yale campus.  That university hasn’t had a murder for eleven years.  So local newspapers, radio and TV stations, and on-line journalists have a good story on their hands.  It’s an important story—to them.  But what about the rest of us?  I know why this is a big story in New Haven, but I can’t for the life of me explain why it is in New Mexico.

All across the country, TV stations have been including this story in their lineups almost every day.  From the initial missing person’s case to the finding of the body and the eventual arrest, we’ve covered it all.  Is a missing college student news?  It happens pretty often.  Someone is gone for a day or two, reported missing by friends.  The results are often tragic, as in this case.  But it’s not uncommon.  The body of a missing student in Pennsylvania was just found.  Do you know his name?  Have you covered the case every day on your local news?  How about the man who just pleaded guilty yesterday to the murder of a missing student in Oregon?  She’s been gone for five years.  Been covering that one?

So if a missing student isn’t reason enough to begin daily coverage of a case far from home, what else can it be?  I’m not talking about celebrity crime or even suspected political foul play.  Though we covered it too much that summer, the Gary Condit story was certainly news.  When people in positions of power are suspect, it’s our job to try to get that story out there.  I suppose the same goes with celebrities, though those are often overplayed, too.  Just ask Robert Blake.

But Annie Le was neither a politician nor a celebrity.  She was a graduate student studying pharmacology.  So what could be the reason for all this coverage?  As police have released the details of the relationship between Le and her alleged killer Raymond Clark, it appears the murder may have been the final remedy to a case of unrequited love.  Could that be the drawing card on this case?  I say not.  Passion is often the cause of murder, perhaps second only to profit (as in the case of everything from drug deals to inheritances).  If we covered all murders between lovers, ex-lovers, and would-be lovers, there wouldn’t be time left for anything else.  Besides, we started over-covering this one long before we knew about Clark or what his intentions might have been with Le.  We started covering it when she was only a missing person.

Some other writers have argued the glut of coverage coming out of New Haven is due to its most well-known institution.  As an Ivy League school, surely, they argue, a murder there is much more important than on in the Midwest or the Deep South.  That’s why the eastern elite media (and all of us lackeys who imitate their every move) have taken to covering this case so over-thoroughly.  Murdering an Ivy Leaguer is an affront to the standards of that class of person and worth far more ink than the killing of a Big 12 coed.  It’s possible that’s what’s at play here and if it is, then the thinking of media gatekeepers everywhere is quite shallow.  But my theory plumbs new depths of shallowness.  I think I know the reason for this coverage pattern.  We’ve seen it before.

Think back to Christmas 2002.  The disappearance of a cute, young, expectant mother in Modesto, California caught everyone’s attention.  Laci Peterson went missing on Christmas Eve, less than two months before the due date of her son, whom she had already named Conner.  The nation’s media ran with the story and covered the missing woman all the way up until her body was found in mid-April.  Police arrested her husband, Scott Peterson, who by then has become their chief suspect due to a series of extramarital affairs and loose talk around friends.  The media stuck with the story through the Peterson trial, covering it at the network and local level nationwide.  Now think about it.  The Laci Peterson story bears some resemblance to the Annie Le story.  The shock of a Christmas Eve disappearance echoed in Le’s disappearance just a week or so before her wedding.  Both were in their 20s expecting a lot ahead.  Peterson had the birth of her son looming, while Le had her impending graduation from Yale.  But the single factor I think made each of these women the center of an extraordinary amount of media attention?  They are both attractive and photogenic.

I told you it was shallow.  I really do believe that, in this age of such visual richness in media, we’re beginning to pick the crime stories we like to cover the most based on what the victim looks like.  Back in 2002 and 2003, the pictures of Laci Peterson and her big, brilliant smile were everywhere.  I said to people at the time that the pictures of her were driving the coverage.  Her photogenic qualities transcended her death to give her this macabre cover girl status.  The same appears to be the case with Le.  There aren’t nearly as many pictures as with Peterson, but I think editors have once again fallen for an attractive victim.  It’s almost laughable.

Now some of you may be thinking I’m way off base here and that I’m missing the point.  After all, we’re just covering a story everyone is interested in.  Well, without taking us down the road of a few thousand words from the agenda setting literature, let’s just talk about what we’re NOT covering.  This story is taking up space in our newscasts where we could put local material.  Even if we don’t have another reporter who can give us another local story to take its place, let’s just give that extra 30 seconds to one of our existing reporters with a complex story to tell.  Surely she can use 1:40 for that story rather than the same old 1:10.  And networks, you’re expending the most time here.  Take those reporters you have parked in New Haven and send them up to Boston.  Figure out what impact that state has on the health care debate in the absence of Ted Kennedy.  Or head across Pennsylvania to see how all the stimulus-funded road construction has helped that state’s economy.  Maybe travel down to South Carolina to find something to tell us about that state besides the attention-getting actions of its politicians.

It’s not the first time I’ve said it and it won’t be the last.  Spending too much time on ANY one story is bad for us and bad for our audiences.  Let’s be enterprising and use the valuable local media power we have to tell important stories—not just the ones to which our misplaced judgments lead us.

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