Why is the Media Silent on the Huston Case?

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Eleven days after her return, runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks is still making headlines. Other missing women, such as Lori Hacking and Laci Peterson, sparked similar media frenzy. But not all such cases get the same level of coverage. Ed Gordon discusses the investigation of Tamika Huston, a missing African-American woman in South Carolina, whose story has failed to make national headlines. Guests: Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, and Sylvester Monroe, editor of the Atlanta & the World section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

ED GORDON, host:

So what does determine which cases receive national attention and which do not? Joining us to explore this question, Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school based in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Sylvester Monroe, and international and national affairs editor with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Thank you both for joining us. Kelly McBride, let me start with you. We just heard in Allison Keyes' report the idea that particularly for the national media as relates to television, they want it to fit a certain demographic. Do you believe that to be the case?

Ms. KELLY McBRIDE (Poynter Institute): I think it's more complicated than that, and I think it's more prevalent when you're talking about missing children than missing adults. Most missing adults don't get national coverage, and I think the runaway bride was an exception rather than a predictable case, because it was in CNN's backyard. So I'm not convinced--I know race plays a factor in it, but I'm not convinced with adults that it's as prevalent as with children.

GORDON: Sylvester Monroe, do you agree?

Mr. SYLVESTER MONROE (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution): Well, not entirely. I think as the person in the clip said, it's not a conscious effort, but this happens a lot, and it's a matter of sort of what plays in Peoria. Take, for instance--do you remember the case of Private Lynch? She got the--this was the young woman who was kidnapped in Iraq and she became a hero, whatnot, for saving her troops. But there was...

GORDON: Jessica Lynch.

Mr. MONROE: There was another young woman named Shoshana, a black woman from Texas who got almost no coverage, no attention at all, and I think it is because though it is not conscious and no one is calling anybody racist in the media, but what sells, again, is what plays in middle-class mainstream America.

Ms. McBRIDE: Right. But even with those two cases, you had the United States military talking much more about the rescue of Private Lynch, and you had embedded reporters getting those feeds, so, you know, I agree that it played a part, but not the on--I don't think race played the only part, even in that case.

GORDON: Well, let me ask you this, Kelly McBride. When you think about Jennifer Wilbanks, Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson, Lori Hacking, Elizabeth Smart--and you look at those, there is a common denominator there, and the black community and, I suspect, other minorities are crying because if you wanted to, you could cover missing women alone 365 days of the year.

Ms. McBRIDE: Yes, you could. But I think, you know, if you look at Elizabeth Smart, I think race did play a factor in that. You have a young, white, Latter-Day Saint child from an affluent family. Chandra Levy, you had a congressman involved, so--with her, not with the disappearance, but with her--and so I think that was the driving factor in that case. I'm not saying that race doesn't play a factor...

GORDON: Right.

Ms. McBRIDE: ...because it does. I think that the media is more inclined to cover white children who are missing and probably secondly white women, but I also think that there are other factors. There are a lot of adult white missing women who don't get covered. And so I don't think you can say it's the only factor.

GORDON: See, that's...

Mr. MONROE: Well, I would agree with that, but I would also--but then I would ask, it begs the question, why is that?

GORDON: Well, let's pick up on--and I'll turn the question back to you, Sylvester. Let's pick up on what Kelly suggested. There are extenuating circumstances to all of these cases, and if, indeed, you have a congressman alleged to perhaps be involved, something in a national newsroom's backyard, as is the case of Georgia, how much do you believe that, in fact, does play a role?

Mr. MONROE: I think it plays a role, but I still believe it, and nobody likes to hear it, nobody wants to hear it, people get very upset, but race still plays a major factor. I agree with Kelly. It is not the only factor, but I believe it is the major factor in these decisions.

Ms. McBRIDE: And I think you've got to say that race plays a factor in all of society's response, because oftentimes the media pick up from the law enforcement response, and if the law enforcement is downplaying the missing person, suggesting that it is either a parental custody case or a--simply someone who has voluntarily run away, the media are less likely to cover it. So the initial law enforcement response or, in the case of the US military with Jessica Lynch, their response, the media play into that...


Mr. MONROE: ...rather than counter that, rather than fulfill their watchdog role and question if authorities are responding properly...

GORDON: But Sylvester Monroe, I hear from you that it's human nature that you tend to gravitate toward things that are like you, and as we all know, the makeup of most national newsrooms is still predominantly white, still predominantly male, and if you see someone who looks like your mother, your wife, your daughter, you're more apt to have a visceral connection?

Mr. MONROE: That's absolutely right, and that's what I meant by that phrase. It's and old phrase used to be spoken in the media many times. How does it play in Peoria?

GORDON: Right. Kelly, would you buy that?

Ms. McBRIDE: Yeah, I would, and I think particularly as you get--you know, you got to distinguish between the national media and the local media. The local media are much more likely to cover a local story regardless of race. The national media, because they're picking and choosing, I think probably are more inclined to cover a white person, but not exclusively.

Mr. MONROE: Yeah.

GORDON: And finally, with about 30 seconds, Sylvester, wrap up--what's your point there.

Mr. MONROE: Well, I think one of the--I think you can look at this and it begs the question. If you look at the O.J. Simpson trial, case of the century, huge case; many African-Americans believe that while that would have been a story in itself because O.J. Simpson was such a celebrity, if his wife had not been white, if he had killed his first wife, Marguerite, who was a black woman, it would not have been nearly as big a story.

GORDON: All right. Many people believe that to, in fact, be the case.

Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, and Sylvester Monroe, is an editor with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

We thank you very much for joining us. Appreciate it.

Mr. MONROE: You're welcome.

Ms. McBRIDE: Thank you.

GORDON: Coming up, a special NBA roundtable; three legends of professional basketball tell us why the game isn't what it used to be.

This is NPR News.

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