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Peterson Gets the Press

Media coverage of the Laci Peterson case comes at the expense of serious journalism

By Stephen C. Bartenstein

The soap opera saga that is the Scott Peterson case has finally reached its last leg. The snarky, nefarious California salesman is going to fry—or at least remain locked up for the rest of eternity. While the details of this case are undoubtedly serious and sobering, the mind-boggling amount of media coverage it has garnered is grossly out of proportion with its national importance. In fact, the media circus surrounding this case is downright sickening.

Every year, roughly 200,000 adults are reported missing. Yet the Peterson case had an almost complete monopoly on media coverage, leaving the vast majority of missing adults anonymous victims.

One such anonymous case is that of Evalyn Hernandez. Like Laci Peterson, this pregnant young California woman was brutally murdered with her unborn baby. Also like Laci, her remains were found in San Francisco Bay. Interestingly, the national media never even made mention of this case.

In contrast, tabloids, gossip magazines, and most notably cable news channels have had a field day with the Peterson case. On Fox News Channel, for example, there was nary a day during Scott Peterson’s trial that chief legal analyst Greta Van Susteren didn’t make the case front and center on her program “On the Record.” On MSNBC, meanwhile, the host of “The Abrams Report” Dan Abrams featured a segment on the trial every day until its culmination. Thankfully, network news and the mainstream newspapers have largely refrained from over-covering the case. Yet even these organizations have been forced to kowtow to the pressures of the “alternative” media and cover his guilty verdict. On NBC, for instance, Tom Brokaw featured the verdict prominently on his nightly news program and Dateline aired an hour-long special on the case.

So how can we account for the difference in media coverage between the case of Evalyn Hernandez and the case of Laci Peterson? Laci is a Caucasian, middle class housewife from Modesto; Evalyn Hernandez is a poor immigrant from the Philippines. While this might not indicate inherent racism on the part of the media, it does represent the media’s obsession with the bottom line. The unwarranted airtime given to the Laci Peterson case is simply a tactic to boost ratings by covering the story that has the broadest public appeal—and, sadly, a case involving a young wealthy white woman has more appeal to the public than a case invovling a poor immigrant. But if the media is truly only interested in this bottom line, can their work still be considered journalism?

With the advent of the 24-hour cable news channel, the news industry began to digress from serious (albeit occasionally soporific) to bombastic, sensational and disposable. Today’s news is riddled with salacious stories, think O.J. Simpson or Chandra Levy, that are entertaining but utterly irrelevant and inconsequential. Unfortunately, this journalistic indiscretion has at least one serious negative consequence. As it is natural to assume that a story’s importance is proportional to the amount of media coverage it generates, the media is disseminating a warped worldview to an unsuspecting, gullible public. The media must remember that it has an ethical responsibility to inform the public about issues that most impact them, and not resort to yellow journalism to ramp up ratings.

While adults like Evalyn Hernandez go missing every day, Greta Van Susteren and her media cohorts spend hours expounding on why the jury foreman at Scott Peterson’s trial was dismissed. Although this soap-opera escapism may boost ratings, it is a slap in the face to serious journalism.

Stephen C. Bartenstein ’08, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Stoughton Hall.

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