August 13, 2004

In defense of murder

I found these paragraphs, from a story on a much remarked upon murder case in the Washington Post -- well, worthy of remark:

The story of the substitute teacher who vanished from her middle-class Modesto neighborhood captured the public's attention. The Petersons were college sweethearts who were anticipating their first child. Laci Peterson was eight months pregnant. The nursery was ready; they had already picked the name Conner.

Scott Peterson and Laci's family told authorities on Christmas Eve 2002 that she was missing. Thousands of Modesto citizens rallied around the family, combing nearby neighborhoods, searching empty warehouses, drainage ditches and alleys. Officers in helicopters, on horseback and in boats canvassed the area for months.

As suspicion surrounding Scott Peterson intensified, satellite trucks and news vans crammed the sidewalks in front of the Petersons' home. Rows of cameras were pointed at the front door, recording Peterson's every move. Two radio disc jockeys arrived from Los Angeles with a bullhorn and screamed at Peterson from the sidewalk to admit to the murders.

Such media activity is based on a desire for ratings, not a desire to report on newsworthy events, said Joe Saltzman, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication.

"Whether Scott Peterson is ultimately found guilty or innocent has very little impact on our lives," Saltzman said. "We now live in a global community. Because of the media, everybody is now our neighbor, and we've always been interested in finding out about our neighbor's dirty laundry. It's human nature to be curious." (emphasis added)

If I am not mistaken, newspapers still refer to the blocks of text that line their columns as "stories." Stories are either worth reading or not worth reading, and most reporters try (though many do not succeed) to make the stories they write worth the reader's time to wade through them. Because these stories are based on fact, the facts themselves dictate the interest the reader will have in the story. A township meeting in which the discussion is focused on a raise of 2 percent plus the cost of living for all garbage collectors may have wide impact (to the garbage collectors and those who pay the taxes that pay their salaries), but it's rather hard to make such a story as compelling as that of a sensational murder.

Generally when newspapers write about things that affect wide numbers of people -- auto insurance rates, the inadequacies of health care coverage, abusive police departments -- they begin by humanizing the story with an anecdote:

Joe Smith gazed grimly at the refrigerator that was once full of food. The 25-year-old camera store employee is one of many Americans who have given up necessities -- in Smith's case, eating -- in order to pay off their credit card debt.

The average credit card holder owes $14 million, according to new figures released by the prestigious Center for Releasing Wildly Exaggerated Statistics to the Press...

Okay, I probably oversold my point; still, when a reporter wants to explain, say, the ups or downs of the labor market, she doesn't begin with figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, she begins either with the small businessman who is struggling to find help in a tight job market, or the incredibly qualified CPA who lost his job in the downturn and is grateful to have a job flipping burgers. In other words, they tell stories which put human faces on the cold, hard statistics.

So what are we to make of the tale of murder in Modesto. Is it a newsworthy event? Is the trial worth our attention?

Of course. First, the operation of the criminal justice system in any state is of great importance to citizens. To discover that, perhaps, the state withheld evidence while preparing a witness to testify, or any other irregularities, is disturbing, to say the least.

But my point (if I have one) is much broader than that. Such stories do have an impact on our lives, just as novels and fictions do, but I would argue that the impact of tales of real monsters (and the term applies whether Peterson is found innocent or guilty -- because somebody killed that woman) is greater than that of the fictional ones. Who, after all, can not look at this sad case and not feel his own humanity a little more keenly.

Posted by Ideofact at August 13, 2004 10:09 PM