Media Obsession With Damsels in Distress

Kevin Drum pithily summarizes the media’s (and, as I noted earlier, it’s not just the “mainstream” media’s) obsession with Damsels in Distress:

According to a cable news employee who was willing to state the obvious on an anonymous basis, “We showcase missing, young, white, attractive women because our research shows we get more viewers. It’s about beating the competition and ad dollars.”

Quite right. While, in the spirit of all men being equal, the disappearance of a beautiful white teenager whose parents can afford to send her to Aruba is no more heartwrenching than that of a poor black kid from Compton, we all know that the latter would not get a nanosecond of television time.

His analysis strikes me as spot-on:

The tabloidization of everything is, frankly, a little more important than whether or not Elisabeth Bumiller is tough enough on the Bush White House. But there’s more to it than just that. Obsessive coverage of DiDs is just one of several phenomena that continues to convince Americans — especially suburban, white Americans — that the world is a far more dangerous place than it really is. The rate of kidnappings and missing children has actually plummeted in recent years, but a constant drumbeat of TV coverage focused on DiDs and kids presents a compelling visual narrative that’s the exact opposite of reality.

Yep. I don’t blame the press for covering the things that history has proven will generate audience share and therefore ad revenues. The business of the media is ultimately business, as it is for any other for profit enterprise. That doesn’t make it less depressing, however.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. whatever says:

    I can think of several counter-examples off the top of my head. Remember the GUY who dissappeared in Mexico a few years back? What about the black kid taken from a bus stop by a woman who told her getting-out-of-prison boyfriend that she had a baby while he in the slammer? One of the other major blogs (Wizbang, Captain’s Quarters, one of those) also ran an article giving lots of other counter-examples.

    Back up your theses only using examples that support it, then you will always be right.

  2. denise says:

    Part of it is a natural consequence of Amber Alerts, which I think are generally a good thing. A missing child case gets a lot more atteniton right from the start than it would have 20 years ago, because there is a system in place and a hope that the system will end up helping find the child alive. And it does work sometimes.

    The Amber Alert system, AFAIK, does not apply to a case like Lacey Peterson, but the same hope does, and it drives the family and the police to consult the media. It’s hard to stop a moving train, so once the media had the Lacey Peterson case, it wasn’t going to let go.

    I agree that this doesn’t explain why the cases of minorities and boys don’t get as much attention, just part of the reason that the overall focus on missing persons has increased. And I agree it does create the false impression that these cases are more prevalent than in the past.

  3. Freedebate says:

    To “Whatever”:

    Concerning your guy in Mexico, remember the guy that disappeared in Mexico City about 10 days ago…? No? too bad he was’t a young, middle/upper-class female or Pres. Fox would already be on the TV. And FBI… they do not seem to be rushing to find the guy in Mexico.

  4. bryan says:


    counterexamples are not going to do anything unless there’s some sort of quantitative analysis of this coverage. And to be honest, there are a number of factors that go into whether the coverage is going to reach to the levels of a Lacey Peterson or this girl in Arruba or the girl who got killed in Utah. Looks is just one of those factors. Good video is another. Age is another.

    Recall the black girls who were kidnapped and then later found alive. There were live child victims who were recovered while cameras were rolling. That’s going to draw lots of coverage. The young white women disappearing plays into demographic reality for news coverage. Suburban moms who send their kids on senior trips will eat up the coverage on this – at least that’s what the ratings gurus say.

    It’s the same reason Danica Patrick still warrants stories in the sports pages and on ESPN. Not because they’ve somehow calculated that she won the Indy 500, but she’s still a hot young woman in a racing suit who isn’t averse to peeling some of it off for the cameras. And that sells.