How we pick which cases to cover

Now that Fatal Vows has been on the air for a month, I’ve been asked many times how we picked the cases.  The selections of cases for the show were made by our amazing production company, CMJ productions in Montreal, Canada, and if you’ve watched, or if you do watch (Saturdays, 9pm Central, 10pm Eastern), I hope you’ve found, or will find, that they did an excellent job of finding cases containing a fascinating diversity of personalities and issues.  In last week’s episode, for example, the “husband” turned out to be a woman posing as a man!  How cases are selected for a feature series is different from how cases are selected for intensive news coverage, which is one of the most common questions I’ve received over the past six years, but there are some commonalities.  I wrote a column in answer to the latter question in 2009, and if you’re interested, I’ll reprint that below.

As a psychologist, lawyer, and expert on networks including Court TV, MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN Headline News, I’ve been involved in the television coverage of most major American crime stories in the past few years.  Off the air, the question that I’m asked most frequently by viewers is this one:  “Why do some cases get so much national TV coverage and others don’t?”  That question often is accompanied by noteworthy observations like, “On the day Caylee Anthony was reported missing, approximately 2000 other children were reported missing in the United States according to the FBI,” with natural follow-up questions like, “So why don’t we see anything about them?” and “Why do we know all about JonBenet Ramsey and Natalee Holloway and Caylee but little or nothing about so many other worthy cases?”  These are valid questions, and I think they’re worthy of serious thought and straightforward answers from those of us in the national TV news media.  There are answers, I think, and they may be surprisingly simple.

The vast majority of serious crimes are covered at the local level, but only a small fraction of them make the jump to the national level.  Why?  Three key factors:  the national need to know, the time and resources available to the national media, and “sensationality.”  First, it’s not true that everything in the TV news business is ratings-driven.  The news media certainly isn’t just a public service institution – it’s a business – but it’s not just a business either.  It’s a business that performs a public service, and I think that most TV news professionals (100% of the ones I know) recognize a responsibility to give viewers information that they need to know, whether they necessarily want to know it or not.  The question in each individual case, however, is whether the need to know extends beyond the geographic area in which the underlying events took place.  That question has to be answered on a case-by-case basis, and when the answer is yes, there generally will be at least one national report on the “big three” broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) and multiple reports on the cable news networks.  Second, even a 24-hour news cycle only has 24 hours in it, and that’s not enough time to give more than a few cases the kind of wall-to-wall coverage that we’ve been giving to the Caylee Anthony case.  On top of that, while a lot of footage and information can be obtained from local and regional “affiliate” stations, even networks with the vast resources of CNN and Fox News have to place limits on the numbers of network reporters, producers, expensively-outfitted camera crews, satellite trucks, etc. that they keep in the field for the extended periods of time necessary to cover each and every investigative and procedural development in complex criminal cases.  That’s where the third factor, “sensationality” for lack of a better (or real) term, comes into play.  It’s the extent to which each individual case involves elements that tend to draw the interest and attention of viewers far-removed geographically from the underlying events, and it has its own set of elements.        

Certain types of cases, for better or worse, have proven over time to drive viewer empathy, interest, and consequently, ratings – to become “sensational.”  Why?  Seven key elements, in no particular order:  1) youth, 2) beauty, 3) sex, 4) celebrity, 5) mystery, 6) fear, and 7) victim innocence.  First, when children, like Caylee Anthony, are involved, viewers’ emotions get involved, and they tend to feel more empathic desire to follow stories than they do when only adults are involved.  Second, like it or not, people are more inclined to sustain the focus of their attention when the object of their attention, Natalee Holloway for example, is attractive to them.  People are also more inclined to keep watching when they identify with whomever they’re watching, which, given the demographics of the American television audience, partly explains the disparity in coverage between missing-persons cases involving white and middle-class victims versus minority and poor victims.  Third, human beings have an involuntary, evolutionary fascination with sex, so when someone’s turned on, as in the case of Debra LaFave (the Florida high school teacher who had sex with her male student), they tune in.  Fourth, the combination of our celebrity-obsessed culture and the psychological phenomenon known as “schadenfreude” (guilty pleasure in the downfalls of others) means that when we report on “falling stars,” like O.J. Simpson or former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, ratings rise.  Fifth, most people are, to some extent, “armchair detectives,” and as such, when there are particularly good mysteries involved, as in the JonBenet Ramsey case, viewers become intellectually involved, just as they might become engrossed in a good mystery novel and want to stick with it to the end.  

The sixth and seventh key elements of sensationality are the most complicated and require a little additional explanation.  The sixth element, fear, is among the most powerful motivators of human behavior, and in order to gain control over it, people crave understanding of that which they fear.  Therefore, when a case is particularly frightening, like the 2002 case of the “beltway snipers” in and around the D.C. area, people tend to look to the media for as much information as they can get.  There are limits, however, to the fear factor, and those limits involve the levels of gruesomeness and/or repulsiveness of the underlying acts in specific cases.  For example, the beheading of a passenger on a Canadian bus last year and the recently-discovered series of incestuous rapes and resulting stillbirths perpetrated by a Missouri man over the past decade were so gruesome and so repulsive respectively that viewer demand for continuing coverage of those cases was low.  The seventh element is victim innocence, perhaps more aptly named perceived victim innocence.  Viewers have more empathy for, and thus more interest in, following cases in which the victims are perceived to have been totally innocent, as in the case of Anne Pressly, the Arkansas newswoman who was brutally attacked and killed last year in a home invasion.  Pressly was in her own home, alone, in her own bed, when a vicious rapist and murderer burst in and assaulted her so savagely that she never regained consciousness.  In contrast, when victims are perceived, even inaccurately (perception is reality here), to have participated in creating the situations in which they were victimized, as in the case of Laura Garza, a New York woman who disappeared late last year after leaving a nightclub with a stranger now known to have been a registered sex offender, people’s empathy and demand for continuing coverage, rightly or wrongly, drop proportionally.  Interestingly but unfortunately, any perceived fault on the part of missing children’s parents can be projected onto the totally-innocent children and diminish interest in their cases.  If the parents are perceived, whether accurately or stereotypically, to have lived a lifestyle that put the children at risk, viewers won’t have as much empathy as they’d have if the parents were perceived to have “done everything right,” which, given again the demographics of the American television audience, also partly explains the disparity in coverage of such cases involving white and middle-class victims versus minority and poor victims.  (Sheer numbers, too, play a large part in the disparity in coverage along racial lines – according to the FBI, roughly twice as many white children as minority children are reported missing in the United States each year).  

The more of the above seven elements of sensationality that are present in a specific case, the more likely it is to attract the attention of journalists and viewers alike and to make the jump from local to national coverage, to “go national.”  (Interestingly, those same elements also help explain why such a large proportion of the stories that do get national TV coverage are essentially “bad news” – try to think of a “good news” story involving more than three or four of the seven!)  Take the Caylee Anthony case for instance.  That began as a local missing-child story in Orlando, Florida and quickly drew such intense national coverage that Ms. Anthony’s trial, which probably won’t take place until 2010, has already been dubbed “the trial of the century,” a dubious distinction last ascribed to O.J. Simpson’s murder trial back in 1995.  The magnitude and breadth of interest in the Anthony case makes sense though, considering that it had all but two of the seven key elements.  It had youth, a precious child victim whose face became nationally-recognizable during the nearly six-month search that ultimately yielded her remains instead of the happy ending for which we all had hoped.  It had beauty, an attractive now-23-year-old female defendant who, at least until recently, seemed all but unable to keep from playing to the cameras, though they’ve been focused on her for the worst of reasons.  It had sex, a defendant whose promiscuous lifestyle has made it as yet impossible to determine the paternity of the victim and is suspected by many, myself included, to have contributed at least to the reckless neglect, if not the cold-blooded murder, of the child.  It had, above all, a captivating mystery, a child whose death has been ruled a homicide but cannot be forensically explained, a mountain of circumstantial evidence pointing toward her mother, and a cast of colorful characters including a set of emotionally-overloaded grandparents and an ensemble of investigators, witnesses, lawyers, and experts the likes of which haven’t been seen since last century’s “trial of the century.”  Finally, there was no question as to the complete innocence of the victim in the Anthony case, giving it a total of five out of a possible seven empathy and interest-inducing elements of sensationality. 

Once a story makes the jump from local to national coverage, the extent to which it continues to be covered does depend largely on ratings.  Sometimes, as in the Canadian bus beheading or the Missouri incest cases that I mentioned previously, viewers express little interest in hearing more than the initial facts.  The stories are just “too ugly.”  Other times, as in the Anthony case, viewers are all but glued to their TV sets waiting for the next “shocking new development,” regardless of whether it’s a genuine bombshell or more like a time-filling dud.  It’s also worth noting that, just as the media’s time and resources limit the number of cases that can get wall-to-wall national coverage simultaneously, viewers’ time and emotional resources are limited such that they generally can only follow two or three major cases at once.  The attention spans and the “heartstrings” of even the most compassionate armchair detectives have limits.  Thus, once the initial facts of a case have been reported nationally, the level of continuing national coverage really does become almost entirely viewer-driven, at least until additional need-to-know facts come to light.  

So, who determines which cases get wall-to-wall national coverage and which ones don’t, the media or the public?  I say, both.  Initially, the media decides, but eventually, you decide – you and everyone else who’s interested, for various combinations of reasons, in the cases that the media has needed, been able, and yes, chosen, to bring to your attention.  By demanding more or less information from us, you play a key role in helping the media to decide which cases get ongoing national coverage.  Then, by questioning us about those decisions, you again play a key role in keeping us thinking about why we do what we do, and for that – for watching, questioning, and now reading – I thank you. 

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