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May 10, 2005

Constructive Media Criticism

By Jim Dallas

If you've been reading the blog circuit recently, you know that Doug McKinnon, a former staffer for Bob Dole, has written a stinging op-ed in the Chicago Tribune about the media fascination with missing "single white females" --

Note to the news media--with an emphasis on the cable networks: Enough is enough.

Your continual focus on, and reporting of, missing, young, attractive white women not only demeans your profession but is a televised slap in the face to minority mothers and parents the nation over who search for their own missing children with little or no assistance or notice from anyone.

The latest missing woman to dominate the airtime of the cable networks was Jennifer Wilbanks, from Duluth, Ga. Like Dru Sjodin, Chandra Levy and Elizabeth Smart all before her, Wilbanks is young, white and attractive. Wilbanks, as it turned out, ran away of her own volition from her impending marriage. As a Maryland police official told me after Wilbanks turned up in New Mexico, "the media's non-stop focus on the possible abduction of Wilbanks forced the local officials and police departments to spend thousands of dollars they would not otherwise have spent."

Define racism. One could certainly make the argument that the cable networks that continually focus on these missing white women, to the virtual exclusion of minority women, are practicing a form of racism. The racism in this case, however, while predicated on color, does not concern itself with the color of one's skin. Rather, it is based on the color of money, ratings points and competition. Would an African-American woman who went missing days before her wedding receive the same (or any) coverage as that of Wilbanks? Not likely.

The unfortunate irony being that important trends go unreported while singular, sensationalistic incidents like the run-away bride story get coverage way out of proportion to their actual relevance. Granted, such journalism appears to get the John Tierney seal of approval, but I think we can all agree with Tbogg about John Tierney.

Here at the Burnt Orange Report we like to do more than idle complaining, so here's a hot (only because it's been simmering on the backburner for about a decade) scoop for all you journalists:

The Governor of the state of Chihuahua in Mexico said recently that international attention on the situation in Ciudad Juarez is damaging the city's public image. The purpose of Reyes Baeza's comments is unclear, but such statements in the past have had the effect of undermining families and local NGOs seeking justice.

To say that it is international concern, and not the situation in the region, that is damaging the city's image is very clearly wrong-headed. Ciudad Juarez has a reputation for violence and brutality against women -- not because of international concern -- but because of the reality and the institutional failures to deal effectively with this reality.

The reality is that since 1993 more than 370 young women and girls have been murdered in the cities of Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua - at least a third suffering sexual violence - without the authorities taking proper measures to investigate and address the problem.

Thanks to the efforts of the families of the victims and local women's organizations, coupled with international campaigning by the likes of Amnesty International and V-Day, things have begun to change. In 2003-4, in the face of this intense pressure, the federal government finally agreed to get involved, with a range of measures to combat violence against women in Ciudad Juarez -- but sadly not the city of Chihuahua.

By "international pressure," of course, Amnesty International does not appear to be talking about the mainstream media in the United States. A LexisNexis search of major newspapers' full text over the last five years turns up 210 hits for "Jennifer Wilbanks", 293 hits for "Dru Sjodin", and "error, over 1,000 results found" for "Chandra Levy" (I counted 2,876 by splitting the search into about five different time-periods). Combined for three women, this is 3,379 stories over five years, or about one-and-a-half per day.

A full-text search of "'Ciudad Juarez' AND 'missing women'" returned 12 stories, four of which were printed by Canadian papers, three by Australian papers, and one by the London Telegraph. So basically, major U.S. papers have run four stories over five years. Wire services ran 18 stories; I could not find a single English-media transcript or magazine article containing those search terms.

Lexis-ing isn't necessarily the best measure of the mainstream media's focus, since it depends on the art of search-term-ing. Nonetheless, I think we can all see a pattern here.

If you've heard of this issue at all it's probably been because of human rights NGOs or Texas-based womens' issue advocates. That's how I'm aware of the issue, anyway. The media is doing a truly shameful job of addressing border issues, particularly when they intersect with the larger issue of womens' safety.

Posted by Jim Dallas at May 10, 2005 02:29 PM | TrackBack


Is anyone else disturbed that this guy is making judgments on which 12-year-old girls are attractive? But seriously, true that.

Posted by: Kevin L. at May 10, 2005 03:24 PM

The reason I've heard about the situation in Ciudad Juarez is because I'm from El Paso. The violence is apalling and it sickens me that the mainstream media, outside of El Paso, doesn't pay attention to this story.

Posted by: Ramon at May 10, 2005 03:38 PM

Jim, While I respect what you are saying and the point you make, your Lexis/Nexis search concerning Ciudad Juarez was just incorrect. The Houston Chronicle, my hometown paper, has published at least 5 stories on this situation in the past year. I recall a feature story on the missing women of Cd. Juarez in the Houston Press in the last year as well. In addition, KHOU-TV has has special reports on the disappearance of women from both it's Houston based reporters, and it's Mexico City bureau chief. I think perhaps the parameters you put in the search were the reason there were so few "hits" from the US media.

Posted by: grnwayrob at May 10, 2005 05:34 PM

A couple of the hits I got were from the Houston Chronicle. Also, neither KHOU nor the Houston Press are included as "major papers" by LN.

"Major papers" in Texas are, for example, the H-Chron, the Statesman, the Dallas Morning News, and the San Antonio Express-News. There may be a few others.

I doubt it's the search terms so much as the source list. Although the search terms are part of it.

Posted by: Jim D at May 11, 2005 12:15 AM
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