Thursday, October 4, 2007

The News Frenzy About Missing Women

A few days ago, I was interviewed by a reporter from the Wisconsin State Journal who was writing an article about the news coverage of yet another missing woman in our area. It turns out that, like another missing woman recently, this one left suddenly of her own accord because she was feeling stress, and she was later found unharmed. Unfortunately, earlier this year, there was also a tragic local story about a missing woman whose body was found in a county park and whose murderer is apparently still on the loose. The question the reporter asked me was, "how should the news handle these stories, without freaking children out who may be in the vicinity of a television set?" My answer was that news programs are in a difficult position. If a person is missing and foul play is suspected, new programs are doing a public service by notifying the community to look for her. My advice was that a news program could perform that service by matter-of-factly announcing that police were looking for a woman (perhaps with her picture), who was last seen in a particular type of car in a particular location, etc. This would not make a "compelling" news story, however. The purpose of television news is not simply to provide useful information; it's to bring in as many viewers as possible so that stations can charge high fees to their advertisers. Because of this, news programs usually don't stop with the facts about who's missing and from where. They often speculate about the kind of ill fate that might have befallen her; they often talk about the dreaded outcomes that have occurred in similar situations; and they sometimes even interview distraught friends and family members. These are the things that upset children greatly. As long as the purpose of TV news is to make money, news channels are not likely to limit these stories to providing necessary information. This makes children the secondary victims of these events (even if everything turns out OK for the missing woman). Many children will be left with residual anxieties and sleep problems. So it is all the more necessary for parents to avoid watching the news when children are present.

What do you think? Should television stations avoid emotionalizing these missing woman stories? Should they care more about their impact on children or their advertising revenues?

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