Some Are Less 'Newsworthy' Than Others

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, February 18, 2006

On Nov. 28, 2003, shoppers swarmed Washington area malls hunting for bargains as the holiday season kicked off; hard-line Protestant and Catholic political parties in Northern Ireland triumphed in local legislative elections; two major oil companies in Russia abruptly suspended their landmark merger; and here in Washington, Marion Fye of V Street NE vanished. All of the foregoing, except Fye's disappearance, was duly reported in the Nov. 29 edition of The Post.

Marion Fye's name first appeared in the news, and only in this newspaper, last June 10, when The Post reported that her live-in boyfriend, 33-year-old Harold D. Austin, aka "Devine," had been charged with her murder. On Feb. 1 a D.C. Superior Court jury found Austin guilty of killing Fye. Her body was never found.

A note from a reader who is also a federal prosecutor contrasted the handling of Fye's disappearance with the media frenzy that followed last year's disappearance of a "young, pretty, white," straight-A Alabama high school graduate named Natalee Holloway, who was vacationing in Aruba.

"Was it because Ms. Fye was 36 years old, a single mother of five children, unemployed and African American?" the reader asked. "Who knows, but kind of sad, don't you think?"

He asked whether media attention during the first days after Fye's disappearance would have helped. Answering his own question, he suggested a news story would have alerted the public and possibly drawn information that could have helped the police. Perhaps.

But did Fye's race make a difference? Certainly it didn't to the D.C. police. The department received well-earned praise for the way in which it responded to reports of Fye's disappearance. Police conducted an authorized search of Fye's home about a week after Austin reported her missing. On Dec. 24, 2003, the D.C. police issued a news release seeking the public's help in locating Fye, who was described in detail. The Post didn't use it.

After an exhaustive 18-month investigation by Detective Christopher Kauffman of the violent crimes branch, the police obtained a confession from Austin, who was put on trial in January and found guilty two weeks ago. Kauffman received the Detective of the Year medal for 2005 for successfully closing the second "no-body" case in police department history. So the police did their job.

Disparate racial treatment in the coverage? Compared with what? The Post has given extensive coverage to the murder of a 15-year-old youth in Southeast Washington and the arrest of another youth for an unconnected murder; both are grandsons of a prominent former member of the D.C. Council -- all African Americans.

The real question, which the reader also posed, is how we decide whether one story is more worthy than another. How do we determine the merits of a case? The answer, in my judgment, lies at the heart of newspaper industry's downward spiral in circulation.

The decision to go with one story rather than another turns on what we in this business consider "newsworthy." It's an amorphous term, but editors claim to know it when they see it. Unfortunately, in my view, that decision seems to boil down to what those of us in newsrooms, and not readers, care about.

And there's the problem. What draws the interest of people in the news business (what they like to read and write about) often bears little relationship to what people who live in communities like Marion Fye's care about.

And that's how a single mom in Northeast Washington who disappears from her home, leaving behind all her children and possessions, doesn't make it into the newspaper.

It's because someone may have decided that a story like hers, of a woman nobody has ever heard of, won't have much significance to readers. It's because someone has concluded that there is nothing out of the ordinary about an adult black single mom walking out on her family. It's because such behavior is considered commonplace, too routine to warrant precious space.

Marion Fye is not alone.

Two weeks ago, the D.C. police asked for the public's help in finding an 88-year-old black woman, about 120 pounds, wearing a salt-and-pepper wig, suffering from dementia, and unable to care for herself, who was last seen at her daughter's doctor's office. The Post didn't print it.

Neither did we tell you that on Dec. 1 the police were trying to locate a 42-year-old black man wearing a Dallas Cowboys hat, eyeglasses, a blue coat and gray pants, who requires medication and was last seen on Nov. 20.

Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for not publishing a report. For example, the missing person is found before the story goes to press. But the fact is that inner-city events that some editors regard as routine -- the loss of a young man to gunfire, a mom separated from her children, kids left to fend for themselves -- are the kind of issues that people who live in those communities really care about.

Tough nuggies. Marion Fye's disappearance, in the judgment of those who get to decide such matters, just wasn't worthy of the news.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company