According to "America: The Book" (the foremost reference on these sorts of subjects), this is the Body Count Conversion rate that the American Media uses, when determining how important news is:
2,000 Massacred Congolese = 500 Drowned Bangladeshis = 45 Fire-bombed Iraqis = 12 Car-bombed Europeans = 1 Snipered American
Or in this case, 1 missing white girl.
By now you've probably heard of the tragic story of Madeline McCann, the girl who disappeared from the family's hotel room while her parents were in Portugal. New developments - now, according to CNN:
The parents of a four-year-old British girl who disappeared while on a vacation with her family in Portugal will be presented to Pope Benedict XVI at the pontiff's weekly general audience Wednesday. Vatican officials said on Monday that the McCann family would be among those brought up to greet the pope during his weekly audience with faithful in St. Peter's Square. The presentation of VIPs and of others who have won permission from the Vatican to personally greet the pope traditionally takes place at the end of the audience, following the pope's homily to the faithful.The family of that missing girl has won an audience with the pope, undoubtedly due in no small part to the media's faithful coverage of their situation. Amazing...
There are many factors that went into making this happen. 1) The parents of Madeline are incredibly media savvy, and knew exactly how to get the word out about their daughter, 2) Madeline is a white girl, and 3) The American media thrives too much on spectacle and "human interest" stories that make no difference on the world stage. Take away one of these three things and the story becomes on a non-story.
It's a tragedy whenever any child anywhere goes missing. But let me put this in perspective. TODAY ALONE, 24,000 people will die of hunger. Eight thousand people will die of AIDS. Today, 1.1 billion people don't have access to clean water. Forty-five (estimated) people will be murdered in America. Untold thousands will die in Darfur today.
And believe it or not: For most of these stats, there are clear, definite things America can do to make the numbers lower! But we don't. The outcry isn't heard. And the media insists on continuing to waste our time telling us about this missing white girl.
As I've mentioned before, Time Magazine's naming of "You" as the person of the year only cemented in popular opinion that traditional media has abdicated its responsibility as a caretaker of information. Coverage of the McCann story demonstrates that this shows no signs of letting up. Whenever I see the media covering these sorts of things, instead of bringing us news that might actually make a difference in our lives, it really gets my blood boiling. It's a misuse of power at the most high, and an affront to those of us that believe the media should be used responsibly as a force of good in this world.
So what should good journalism be like, these days? I'm not sure, but maybe this list would be a good start.
[Update: My brother wrote to me in response to say that the Natalee Holloway story is a better example of the madness described here. I tried to ignore any and all mentions of this in the news when it was happening, and in case you did the same, here's the Wikipedia article to give you an idea of how much time and energy was expended into the search and media coverage.]
[Update 2: There've been some great comments to this post, so let me try and respond:
1) Several have brought up the issue of the corporatization of the media and I wholeheartedly agree; today, news doesn't only provide us with information in a neutral fashion, it is meant to generate profit for companies. The high ratings that these types of stories get feed into the neverending quest for more ratings and more profit. I vote with my eyes and choose not to watch when this type of stuff comes on.
2) There's been criticism about how the phenomenon I'm describing isn't uniquely American. My first reaction is: Just omit all mentions of "US" and "American" from my post; the criticism still stands.
My second reaction is: Perhaps you are all right and all news all around the world is always like this, but for my money, I'd trust the BBC news over CNN any day. Also, I'd be interested in what people have to say about this and also about this.]
[Update 3: For more relevant opinions on the subject, please see this recent post with video included: Jon Stewart Interviews Al Gore.]