Is There a "Star System" for Crime Victims?
If, God forbid, your child goes missing, you'd better hope she's cute.
And it would help if she's blond.
Oh, and white.
Otherwise, if history is any indicator, you may wait a while for the outpouring of media attention that could result in the crucial tip to crack the case -- meaning either finding your child alive or, at least, nabbing the perpetrators of a kidnapping or murder.
Last week, the media went ape over the latest arrests of Joran van der Sloot and brothers Satish and Deepak Kalpoe in the 2 1/2-year-old Aruba disappearance of Alabama teen Natalee Holloway. The case has long been a favorite of cable news, often swallowing up hour-long programs with speculation, expert analysis and the occasional witness account.
And lately, media personalities have been obsessed about the case of Illinois missing wife Stacy Peterson, a story peppered with bizarre quips from her four-times-married police sergeant husband and the exhumation of his mysteriously deceased third wife.
Both cases have everything the media have come to love: Trouble befalling the girl next door, the thrill of digging up the dirty little secrets of Scott Peterson-type characters, and victims who happen to resemble the other victims who've received primo coverage over the years.
And then there's Latasha Norman.
Latasha, a 20-year-old honor student working at an arts and crafts store to pay her way through Jackson State University, was last seen Nov. 13 in an afternoon class. She never made it back to her dorm. Her car, which previously had been the target of tire-slashing, remained on campus.
Latasha is African-American, a churchgoing girl from the Mississippi Delta. "We were just praying that we would wake up today and God would give us some new information," Norman's father, Danny Bolden, said on Thanksgiving. "But the day's not over yet."
Frustrated by the lack of national media coverage in the case, Jackson Police Chief Malcolm McMillin, who is white, said what one can't help but think: "As far as the interest by the national media in the story, I think race probably had an impact. ... It's the daughter of simple people who maybe are not important outside of their circle, and maybe we don't attach the same importance to them that we do for other people."
After the chief's comments, McMillin and Bolden finally got a chance to speak on MSNBC. Media guilt only lasts so long, though, and Latasha's case has taken a back seat again.
For every Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson, Elizabeth Smart or Jon-Benet Ramsey, there are dozens more missing or murdered women and men whose cases deserve the same valuable spotlight. People such as John Walsh have helped fill this information void with programs like "America's Most Wanted," but we still have to ask why the case of missing Madeleine McCann gets splashy daily coverage in the British papers while a quick search of a UK missing children Web site reveals so many names and faces -- many Arab or Indian -- that we've never seen in print.
Are the media on the constant hunt for the next Lindbergh baby, that sensational case that they believe best captures public sympathy and stirs maximum outrage? Do the media jump toward the victim with the top connections, the best-oiled P.R. machine?
Or is selective media coverage of missing and murdered women a vestige of institutional racism that also discriminates on socioeconomic standing?
It's a disturbing question, but cases like Latasha's make the query too important to ignore. Consciously or subconsciously, the media are playing favorites on crime stories, and poor or minority victims of foul play pay the price as fewer people even know about the case in order to provide that crucial tip to law enforcement.
How does this come across to the public? That some lives are worth more than others. But in the media world, it's a matter of some lives being more newsworthy than others -- and those decision-makers, as well as media outlets that hop on the bandwagon of single-case saturation, have their priorities and judgment horribly skewed.
News holes in print are constantly shrinking as revenues slide, and there are only so many hours for cable news to rehash the events of the day.
But here's a thought: What if one Britney Spears story was nixed to make way for the Latashas of the world?
Bridget Johnson is a columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News.