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Two years with the Petersons

Spectators react to Peterson death sentence.

Christmas Eve marks the end of two years during which Laci and Scott Peterson have been the most reported story in Bay Area journalism. What a long, strange trip it's been!

The Peterson saga is more important for what it says about the quality of news than about the sorry life a Modesto fertilizer salesman. Taking a cue from entertainment television, newsrooms created their own reality soap opera. This month, Scott was finally voted of the planet.

The attention lavished on the Petersons catalogues much of what's wrong with contemporary journalism.

John McManus

First, entertainment trumps news. If journalism is supposed to help us make sense of the world, what did we learn from the coverage? There was every opportunity to examine the theme of domestic violence -- a tragedy that's ravaging many local families -- but the cameras and notebooks lasered in on a single instance of a vast problem. They ignored the forest for the tree.

The Peterson case was journalism anti-matter. It's not just that it didn't matter. But it's the antithesis of news. For two years it displaced stories all needed to know with what some wanted to know. Research shows the average American spends about 20 minutes per day on news. How much of that precious, scarce resource was squandered on this dramatic reality show?

With this news selection logic, should we be surprised so many Americans thought Saddam attacked the twin towers or that weapons of mass destruction were really found in Iraq?

The second lesson of the Peterson coverage is the triumph of marketing over reporting. The problem was not that local media covered the Peterson case, but that they used it, promoted it, pushed it. Top of the newscast, top of the front page. News media sold Laci and Scott like Barbie and Ken.

Third, white people count more than brown people. The Chronicle ran an article a year ago about a pregnant Hispanic woman whose corpse washed up in the Bay. The story immediately sank into oblivion.

Fourth, classism. Hard luck stories about poor women killed by their husbands are a dime a dozen. They don't deserve our attention. But an All-American couple from the suburbs? Evil in Eden? That's news!

You say the journalism of old was also sodden with sensation? That's no justification. We'd never accept the medical or legal practice of a century ago. Why should we accept the standards of the Yellow Press in the Information Age?

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.


A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle


San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)


Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

Site highlights


The three-part series follows the rise of three Bay Area handouts:
• Part 1: At free dailies, advertisers sometimes call the shots
• Part 2: Free daily papers: more local but often superficial
• Part 3: Free papers' growth threatens traditional news
• See also: SF Examiner and Independent agree to end payola restaurant reviews
• And: The free tabloid that wasn't: East Bay's aborted Daily Flash


Lou Alexander started a firestorm with his original guest commentary predicting the company would be sold. Several other experts on newspapers have weighed in:
Newspapers can't cut their way back into Wall Street investors' hearts, by Stephen R. Lacy; Alexander responds
Humbler profits won't encourage buyouts, by John Morton; Alexander responds
Newspapers can't maintain monopoly profits because they've lost their monopolies, by Philip Meyer
Knight Ridder in grave jeopardy, by Lou Alexander...


Leakers and plumbers: There's no difference between a good leak and a bad leak? Journalists need a shield law. 11/22/05
Unintended consequences: How Craigslist and similar services are sucking revenue from faltering newspapers. 9/13/05
Is CPB irrelevant? As Congress moves to cut public broadcasting funds, has CPB become obsolete in the modern marketplace. 6/26/05
The paradox of news: There's more news available and its cheaper than ever before, but fewer young people are interested. 5/12/05


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