Topic: Society

Bob Costas
(August 2005)

LaToyia Figeroa, five months pregnant with her second child, was discovered dead–murdered–after being missing for a month. If her name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s not surprising, for despite the similarity of her plight to that of Lacy Peterson, and despite the fact that her disappearance occurred as Natalie Holloway’s May 30 disappearance in Aruba was dominating the airwaves, LaToyia Figeroa’s name and image weren’t deemed sufficiently newsworthy to constitute a national story. Why? Well, part of the reason is that that she wasn’t blonde and she wasn’t white.

The way the media chooses its crime story of the moment has become an embarrassment, but more than that, it has become destructive to racial attitudes in America. No non-white American could observe the astounding media resources and coverage devoted to the Peterson and Holloway stories and not conclude that young white women’s lives are simply considered more precious in the U.S. than the approximately 10,000 African American women who the F.B.I. regard as missing. The Ethics Scoreboard is aware of the media’s arguments on this issue, and they have some validity. The media cannot dictate what interests the public, and newspapers, magazines and television networks are businesses. As long as the endless interviews with Natalie Holloway’s parents get viewers and ratings, there are sound business arguments for giving the public what it wants.

But there are also sound ethical arguments for showing some restraint and a sense of fairness. Media coverage of disappearances sometimes helps solve crimes, and news is meant to have a public service mission as well as a profit-making one. A core duty of the media is to recognize its power to influence attitudes and culture, and bombarding the public with the concept that only the disappearances of pretty blond women constitute a tragedy of national proportions is not a responsible use of that power. True: the media cannot give coverage to the sagas of all the estimated 50,000 missing people in the U.S. But when it devotes thousands of hours to one girl’s disappearance while ignoring an equally tragic story because the race of the victim isn’t a draw for the media’s core market, it is behaving callously and irresponsibly.

Bob Costas, the commentator and sports show host, was recently slated to substitute for Larry King on the latter’s top-rated cable talk show. But when he learned that the topic was going to be the disappearance of Natalie Holloway, he asked for a programming change. The producers refused; after all, Natalie is ratings gold.

So Costas politely withdrew from the show. He didn’t upset Holloway’s parents by saying that he felt the coverage of their daughter’s disappearance had not become excessive, nor should he have. He simply said that it was not appropriate for him to host a program on that topic. He’s right; at this point, it’s not appropriate for anyone.

Costas knows when too much is enough, and had the courage and the principle to show by his own conduct what the rest of his industry should do, but almost certainly won’t.


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