The two abducted girls from Lancaster, Calif., were rescued and are now safe, but there are other abducted girls in other parts of the country who have not been rescued and are not safe.
Samantha Runnion was murdered by her kidnapper, a man who now faces the death penalty, but there are other murdered girls in other parts of the country whose kidnappers are unknown.
Elizabeth Smart is, as I write these words, still missing, but there are other missing girls in other parts of the country, girls who have been missing even longer than Elizabeth, and whose names have never been uttered on Hannity and Colmes, and never appeared in USA Today.
Why? How does it happen that some victimized children become national news and others do not? It is journalists, of course, who make the decisions, but on what basis? For what reasons? Are there guidelines?
I think so. I think there are three. I think that those in the journalism business who make up their minds to cover Elizabeth Smart and not to cover Jane Doe---and I am not one of those people; like you, I am a viewer of TV news, not a potentate; a reader of newspapers, not an editor--- I think that these decision-makers take the following three factors into account:
Location: Where did the crime take place? More to the point, did it take place in a neighborhood in which crime does not usually occur, a high-income area, a place where the living is easy and the homes expensive?
Circumstance: What were the details of the crime? Was there something out of the ordinary about it? In JonBenet Ramsey’s case, she was murdered in her home while her parents were on the premises. In Elizabeth Smart’s case, she was abducted while her younger sister watched, terrified. In Samantha Runnion’s case, she was abducted within a few hundred feet of her home, playing innocently with a friend.
Appearance: Is the child attractive? Is it a handsome young man or a pretty little woman? Is it someone whose face radiates the kind of innocent beauty, or beautiful innocence, that makes the contemplation of a crime against him or her seem all the more ghastly, which is to say, compelling to the viewer or reader?
In every case I can recall of a missing or murdered child making national news, at least one of these factors played a part. More often than not, two. Sometimes, all three.
And all three of them have something in common, something that gets to the very heart of journalism, the very meaning of news. In a book I wrote some years ago called Broadcast Blues, I defined news, in part, as "a freak show of occurrences." It is, in other words, what happens least often, most extraordinarily: the airplane that crashes instead of landing safely, the man who bites the dog. News is casting against type.
And that is why the crime in the low-crime neighborhood is news: it is an airplane crashing. It is why the crime with the bizarre circumstantial twist is news: the man biting the dog. It is why the crime against the physically-favored child is news: the casting against type.
Is there racism in these decisions? Possibly. Is there "lookism"? Definitely. But these are unintended by-products of the journalistic decision-making process; the standard that is really being applied is atypicality. What are the odds that JonBenet Ramsey would be murdered in her own home? Who could believe that Samantha Runnion would be snatched from her own neighborhood in broad daylight? What kind of human being would abduct two teenage girls from parked cars in a lovers’ lane?
As long as stories like these are big news, they are small parts of daily life in America; they are, in other words, rarities. It is a point worth remembering as this summer of the brutalized child moves painfully toward fall.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .