You remember their names, because the media wouldn’t let you forget them: Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway, Elizabeth Smart, Chandra Levy, Lori Hacking — young women who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Gone girls.
Then there were the bad girls. Young women accused of murder — Amanda Knox, Casey Anthony,Jodi Arias. The long-running investigations into their alleged crimes were the stuff of equally obsessive coverage.
But as 2015 creeps toward a close, the gone girls and bad girls have all but disappeared from the media map. The era in which the national news media regularly manufactured folk heroines and anti-heroines from the crime blotter seems to have passed.
No missing young woman has captured the nation’s fancy since Holloway, a blonde Alabama teenager who went missing in Aruba in 2005, dominated headlines and cable news for months. After a succession of similarly well-publicized cases, the coverage of Holloway inspired academics and cultural critics to declare a new phenomenon — the Missing White Woman Syndrome — to describe the media frenzy surrounding such disappearances.
The related woman-on-trial story may have crested in 2011 when Anthony, accused of killing her toddler daughter, Caylee, was found not guilty by a jury in Orlando. When the verdict on Anthony was returned in July of that year, live coverage on CNN’s HLN briefly turned the otherwise modestly rated channel into the most-watched one in America, with about 5.2 million viewers.
But no tale of female misfeasance or victimhood has approached the Anthony story since then — or even come close. At the peak of the Arias trial in 2013, when Arias took the stand to plead for her life after being convicted of her boyfriend’s murder, the audience watching on HLN was less than half that of the Anthony verdict.
Faced with such diminishing returns, HLN has gradually abandoned the tabloid-trial and missing-woman approach that was once its hallmark. After trying for the past two years to tie itself to stories trending on social media, the cable network announced a new strategy last month. It will make over its daytime schedule with repeats of CNN series such as Anthony Bourdain’s food-and-travelogue, “Parts Unknown.” (An HLN spokeswoman declined comment.)
The decline of the woman-in-jeopardy genre may be a story of changing cultural mores and a shifting media landscape.
The maturing of social media drove many woman-in-jeopardy stories off the air and onto Facebook and Twitter, said Carol Liebler, a communications professor at Syracuse University who has analyzed missing-woman news reporting.
“Families [affected by such crimes] have been very active in using social media to get the word out,” bypassing the mass media in the process, she said. The unsavory ways in which the media handled these stories “created some frustration. People felt like they could get the word out themselves.”
Some of the media outlets that were most eager to cover such stories have undergone transformations. Just as HLN has gradually pulled back on true-crime stories, so has a one-time competitor, TruTV. The cable network that began as Court TV pioneered live coverage of trials, such as those of the Menendez brothers and William Kennedy Smith.
After the network renamed itself in 2008, Tru gradually moved away from live trials, ceding the genre to Internet streaming. In place of trials, it began running reality shows such as “Forensic Files” and “Hardcore Pawn”; it now airs comedy and light interview shows (“Impractical Jokers,” “Billy on the Street”) and, occasionally, sports (the NCAA men’s basketball tournament). The programming changes have succeeded in attracting younger male viewers, said spokeswoman Samantha Graham, compared with Court TV’s older, largely female audience.
Public criticism of missing-woman stories may also have compelled the media to reconsider its approach, said Mia Moody-Ramirez, a journalism professor at Baylor University who also has studied the missing-woman phenomenon. “The media kind of polices itself,” she said. “When people tell [the media] that something is wrong, there’s a self-correction.”
Yet the media could also be responding to nothing more complicated than “audience fatigue,” said Sheri Parks, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland. That is, people got tired of the same type of story. “Other news came around to push those kinds of stories off the table,” she said.
Parks, who helped popularize the term “Missing White Woman Syndrome” in TV interviews, said political campaigns, domestic and international terrorism, and the economy occupy a far bigger part of the media’s agenda now. There’s also more attention being paid to racially charged crimes, starting with the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and continuing with police shootings of African Americans, she said.
Parks agrees that the public backlash played some role in shaming news organizations into turning their attention elsewhere. The media’s focus on white women was subtly racist and sexist, because African American men, who comprise a disproportionate share of missing people each year, were rarely spotlighted, she said.
But veteran tabloid editor David Perel believes shame has little to do with it. The most compelling factor may be a lack of compelling material. “There just hasn’t been a story [in some time] that has all the elements that capture the public imagination,” said Perel, the editor of the celebrity-oriented In Touch and Life & Style magazines.
The elements that riveted readers and viewers, he said, included a victim or an alleged perpetrator who was young, female and attractive, and who came from wealth or high social status. The circumstances of the crime had to include a romantic angle or complicated family relationships. It also had to be sufficiently mysterious to ensure long-running interest, he said.
This was true, said Perel, even before O.J. Simpson’s double-murder trial in 1995 ushered in the modern era of tabloid-crime television. (Perel directed the National Enquirer’s coverage of that trial.) In fact, George Orwell, in a famous essay, noted that many of these elements attracted newspaper readers to crime stories in post-war Great Britain, too. And damsels in distress have been a staple of fiction and movies for ages.
Perel said he has searched for such a story for the past two months for In Touch. “Nothing has gotten enough traction,” he said.
It’s not as if America is running out of crimes against, or by, women. According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, adult women comprised about 41 percent of the 165,000 adults reported missing in 2013. Women are far more likely than men to be abused or killed by their domestic partner. Dozens of women are accused of killing a domestic partner (as Arias was) or their children (as Anthony was) each year.
So, Perel says, it’s only a matter of time before the next media frenzy over another young female protagonist erupts.
“I don’t think it’s over,” he said. “The news cycle moves fast. We’re just in a lull right now.”