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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 June, 2005, 19:25 GMT 20:25 UK
Missing teen case grips US media
By Matthew Davis
BBC News, Washington

The disappearance of 18-year-old Natalee Holloway on the Caribbean island of Aruba is a story that is dominating the US media.

Natalee Holloway
Natalee Holloway's disappearance has dominated many news bulletins

Since the teenager went missing after leaving a nightclub on 30 May her picture has stared out from newspapers, while TV bulletins have covered every movement in the story.

It is not hard to imagine cynical reasons why.

Natalee is young, pretty and white. A judge and his son are among five people held over her vanishing.

Aruba, where the teenager was celebrating her graduation, is renowned for an intoxicating party scene.

Tragic as her disappearance is, some have criticised the flood of coverage which is dominating the national news agenda.

Coverage compared

Mark Feldstein, associate professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, told the BBC: "Of course there has been too much coverage, by my standards, but this is what we have come to expect."

Once the story has touched the public imagination you can't row back on covering it until the mystery is solved
Danna Walker
Journalist, CBS News

Mr Feldstein, a former investigative reporter, compared the case to the story earlier this year of the woman who faked her abduction before her wedding, becoming known around the world as the "Runaway Bride".

"These are really not national stories but they get national attention," he said.

"Much of it has to do with the rise of cable networks that have to fill 24/7 schedules, but when such a story reaches a critical mass you find the rest of the media has to cover it."

30 May: Seen getting into car outside nightclub on last night of her trip
31 May: Fails to show up for flight home
2 June: Natalee's family offers reward for information
4 June: Police say three young local men claim they dropped girl off at her hotel at about 2am on 30 May
5 June: Two security guards arrested in pre-dawn raid
6 June: Expanded search for Natalee begins with hundreds of volunteers
9 June: Police arrest the men who claimed they gave Natalee a ride
13 June: Security guards released
23 June: Local judge, Paul van der Sloot arrested. He is father of Joran van der Sloot, one of three men already in custody

Criticism is also being driven from outside the mainstream media, by the army of blog writers whose voices are increasingly being heard.

Columnist and author Arianna Huffington says: "If you were to get your news only from television, you'd think the top issue facing our country right now is an 18-year-old girl named Natalee who went missing in Aruba.

"Every time one of these stories comes up, like, say, Michael Jackson, when it's finally over I think, what a relief, now we can get back to real news. But we never do."

Bloggers claimed a recent victory, successfully raising the profile of leaked secret memos from UK meetings in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

Huffington's latest column compares the major US news networks' focus on three stories from 1 May to 20 June: Natalee's disappearance, the Michael Jackson trial and the Downing Street Memo.

Huffington says that on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC combined, there were 56 segments on the memo, 646 on Natalee and 1,490 on Jackson.

'A huge mystery'

The networks argue that they are simply giving the public what they want; a dramatic human interest story that speaks to the fears of parents across America who send their children off on exotic trips to celebrate their graduations.

Chandra Levy
Coverage of major events was overshadowed by the Levy case

But it is hard to pin down exactly why one story reaches a critical mass, while other similar incidents barely register.

Danna Walker, a senior journalist with CBS News, told the BBC: "There is criticism that it is only a story because she is a pretty, blonde and white - and it is criticism that journalists are taking to heart and looking elsewhere for other stories.

"But it is a big story because it is an American girl who went off on an adventure, and didn't come back. It is a huge mystery, it is something people can identify with.

"It also comes at a time when there have been a rash of stories about children who are missing.

"Once the story has touched the public imagination you can't row back on covering it until the mystery is solved."

Chandra Levy

That a story rises up the news agenda by a combinations of circumstance and timing is hardly a new phenomenon.

The public may be saying 'Isn't this terrible' but at the same time the ratings are going up, people are watching it.
Mark Feldstein
Media analyst

In mid-2002, George W Bush was preparing for an historic visit to Moscow, the ghosts of the civil rights struggle were being laid to rest in an Alabama courtroom, and diplomats were wrestling with the fall-out from another suicide bomb in Israel.

But the only story in town was the death of a Washington intern, Chandra Levy, whose remains had been found more than a year after she went missing.

Historically, crime stories have always been an important driver of the circulation of newspapers and the rating of TV bulletins - and not just in the US.

For Mr Feldstein, however, the modern take has significant differences.

"What is new is the rise of cable. It amplifies the story and brings it into every living room.

"In addition, the profit motive is much greater. With a host of media mergers, there is a sharper eye for the bottom line.

"The US has become such a hypercapitalist society - it inevitably extends to our news coverage."

Hunt goes on

The flood of coverage can also shape unfolding events.

In the early stages of a missing person investigation, the media can play a crucial role in disseminating information to potential witnesses.

And the high profile of the Holloway case is driving efforts to find the teenager.

A volunteer rescue team from Texas flew in to the Dutch Caribbean island on Thursday to support the efforts of local police - at a cost of about $100,000, being met by donations.

The parents of the missing girl say they are learning more about developments from the media than from the authorities.

Meanwhile, the wife of judge Paul Van Der Sloot - who along with his son is among five people under arrest - criticised coverage.

"This is not about Natalee anymore. It's about enormous pressure from the States and the media," she told reporters.

But as the hunt for Natalee goes on, so too do the newscasts.

"Maybe there will eventually be a public reaction against it," says Mr Feldstein. "But there really is a public appetite for it.

"The public may be saying 'Isn't this terrible' but at the same time the ratings are going up, people are watching it."

US runaway bride sells her story
16 Jun 05 |  Americas

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