Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.

 You Make the Call 


Should the Laci Peterson story receive

major story treatment or minor?

Photo by Debbie Noda, Modesto Bee

Consider yourself the executive editor.

Imagine yourself in the newsroom of your favorite television station or newspaper. You sit among the top editors around a long wood veneer table ringed with coffee mug stains. Below are two arguments about the story of Laci and Scott Peterson. They echo the debate going on in Bay Area newsrooms.

Read them both. Think about what you'd do. At the bottom, click to the voting booth and make a choice-either yes it's a major story deserving copious coverage on front and other display pages, or no, it's a minor story deserving occasional coverage, mostly inside the paper. In a sentence or two, defend your decision if you'd like.

After you've voted, check to see how others decided and how some Bay Area media have decided the issue.

Here's some background if you need it: Laci Peterson, a young and 8-month pregnant Modesto housewife disappeared on Christmas Eve. Her body and her unborn son's were later recovered from San Francisco Bay. Her husband Scott is charged with their murder.


It's a Major Story 

            This is a no-brainer.

The story of what happened to Laci Peterson and her about-to-be-born son, Conner, is one of the biggest stories of the last six months. It ought to be played big.

            Many, many people are fascinated by this story, not just in California, but across the country. Laci and Scott are attractive, middle-class people. Most people who follow the news are middle-class or further upscale. They can identify with the Petersons in a way they can't with the poor when they are caught up in tragedy. The story has resonance.

            News is what people want to read and watch, not what some stuffy journalists think they ought to because it's good for them. Our readers are intelligent. And this is what they want to read about. They should get to choose.

            If you want to talk about news values, this story is loaded. It has mystery-Who done it? It's got sex appeal-a handsome young couple. And the guy's having an affair. It's got pathos-how could he cheat on the woman carrying his baby? It's got foul play-murder, according to the police. It appears to be about a common problem-possible domestic violence. It's got a baby, or near-baby. The human interest is off the scale.

            The story's got buzz. If we don't put it on the front page/first segment, people are going to wonder what's wrong with us. And if we don't cover every twist in the plot, they're going to learn it from someone else. That's not good for us. We owe it to our readers/viewers to brief them on what people are talking about.

            Sure this is a story that sells papers and attracts viewers. What's wrong with that? What good is journalism if no one reads or watches it?

And news that doesn't sell, doesn't pay. It takes a lot of money to support good journalism. We have an obligation not just to the owners and shareholders, but to the public to generate news people want to buy

            Even if you don't think this story is important, maybe readers/viewers who come for the Peterson story will stick around for other reporting. We get 'em in the door with the Petersons and they see all the other good journalism we're doing and become informed.

            We can also use the interest in Laci to direct people's attention to the broader issue of domestic violence and other violence against women. Experts say as many as 4 women in 10 suffer violence from a former or current intimate partner at some time in their lives.

            No matter how you cut it, it's a major story.


It's a Minor Story 

No doubt many people hunger for any new detail about the tragedy of Laci and Scott Peterson.

(With such intense media attention, how could they not?)

But if we play the Peterson misfortune big on the front page/first segment of the newscast, aren't we essentially pandering to the morbid curiosity of the public? Using the wreckage of a family to sell papers and newscasts?

Is our task as journalists to turn heads, or fill them?

How does what befell a single resident of Modesto help citizens of the Bay Area make sense of what's happening to us locally or as a nation--to our jobs, our environment, our stewardship of super power, to the quality of life when a record state deficit is tugging at our schools, safety and public health system like a black hole.

Certainly what happened to Laci Peterson is important to her family, to dozens of her Central Valley neighbors. But how important is this woman's death to the Bay Area's nearly 7 million residents?

Is it really worth the front page, or the top of the evening news when police locate an object in the Bay-that later turns out to be an anchor?

Is the job of journalists to use all of their talent to make the important interesting? Or is to make the merely interesting seem important-by giving this story such prominence? Have our values been flipped on their heads?

Is our job as journalists to create buzz, or reduce the great buzzing confusion of the world into patterns that permit us to steer around some of the problems that beset us?

Yes, we may gain some audience in the short run playing this tragedy for all it's worth. But do we squander public trust in doing so-the sense people have that we journalists are really on the readers' and viewers' side?

Will we or the public feel good about this looking back on it? Or will we feel the hangover of Chandra Levy or OJ Simpson coverage?

Certainly, we should report this story--treat it as we would any other tragedy unfolding nearby, but outside the Bay Area. Or better, use the attention generated by the media to write a series of stories about the broader issue of violence against women-and not just attractive white middle class women. Use what's interesting to explore what's important.

There are more legitimate ways to build the audience we need to support journalism, than milking the Peterson tragedy for profits.



Like some help with your choice? Check out the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists.

If you're ready to make the call, click here. Mark "yes" if you think it should be a major story, "no" if you think not.


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

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