Two years with the Petersons

By John McManus
Posted Dec. 23, 2004
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?