Hayleigh Cummings… many of you probably know the story. Five year old girl is kidnapped from her home in Florida. She has been missing for close to two weeks now. It is tragic, disheartening and frightening, but is it news?
According to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, nearly 800,000 children are reported missing each year. So why is Hayleigh Cummings a story? It doesn’t really matter why, all that matters is what media outlets know, that people are fascinated, for a variety of reasons.
Google Hayleigh’s name and take a glance at what Americans are saying about this story. They are afraid, afraid for their own children. “If this could happen to them, it could happen to me.” “Is my child next?”
Fear is a strong and dangerous motivator. It can cause a person to accept truths they normally would not. Among other things, it can influence you to turn your TV back on, and find out more about the latest sensational kidnapping or school shooting. Ok, before you curse my name for downplaying a tragedy such as the 2007 Virginia Tech school shootings, think about this.
In March 2008 CBS ran a story about two female college students who were murdered on their campus in separate incidents. CBS called the story the highlight of what has become an “alarming trend.” CBS is a highly respected news organization that has won 9 Edward R Murrow awards for excellence in electronic journalism.
Of the 4,276 colleges granting degrees to the 18.4 million enrolled students in America (US Census Press Release June 2008), their were 48 murders. Trend?
The explosion of media coverage on the Virginia Tech event caused it to be viewed by many Americans as a widespread problem, instead of an isolated incident. Many experts today agree that college and university campuses are in fact much safer from violent crimes than society at large.
It is a journalistic principle to remain loyal to public interest. In other words, do what will provide the greatest good to the greatest number of people. So who benefits from excessive coverage of Hayleigh Cummings plight, or the terrible massacre at Virginia Tech? Is it the American citizen, or the family of the victims, or the police investigating? Maybe, but what benefit’s the most is the bottom line of large media corporations.
These media giants sensationalize these stories to increase ratings and profits, and in doing so betray the trust they have developed with the American public. They exploit terrible situations like Hayleigh Cumming’s kidnapping, downgrading themselves to the level of a Maury Povich “Who’s the real father?” episode.
Ethics in journalism is a fine line, reporting the truth is important, and I don’t want to say that media coverage of these events is not important, clearly people want to know. But over saturation of coverage and manipulation of viewers is unethical.
Journalists are supposed to be our social watchdogs, protecting the American public by exposing corruption and lies, and providing us with useful information and stories that help to better our lives. It has however, become our responsibility as readers and viewers to be educated, to questions our sources and look for the underlying truths.