Six weeks after Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington disappeared outside a Metallica concert, a hiker in Lynchburg, Va., discovered a body in the woods. Reporter Scott Leamon of WSLS-TV made the connection to Harrington and dispatched a message on Twitter: “Going to check out body found in Campbell Co. Been there 6 to 8 weeks. Possibly female. Morgan Harrington’s been gone 6 weeks.”
When Leamon arrived in Lynchburg, police told him the body probably wasn’t Harrington’s, explaining that the clothing they found didn’t match what she was wearing when last seen at the concert. The remains would have to be examined before a name could be released. Leamon framed his Nov. 30 story around the name he already knew:
“Many have asked whether or not the remains are those of Morgan Harrington, and while police are waiting for the autopsy, they tell us that based on what they know, they don’t think it’s her.”
The Harrington theme persisted online as news about the body spread on Twitter. “Body of a younger woman found in Campbell County. Unknown whether case is tied to Morgan Harrington,” tweeted Charlottesville television station NBC29. And that afternoon, WINA radio tweeted, “Police do not believe body found is that of Morgan Harrington.”
As the day went on, reporters continued to post the latest developments to this social media site. Some find using Twitter is integral to reaching the community. “In order to get more people to watch your story, tweeting lets them know you’re out at the scene,” Leamon said. “If you’re not using Twitter or Facebook, your game is antiquated.”
But with these social media tools, the audience can play, too. Tweets from the public soon began raising questions about the dead woman. “Hoping the body they found was not that of Morgan Harrington … but why are we just hearing about THIS missing person,” @Flora tweeted.
Meanwhile, police were investigating the disappearance of a 23-year-old black woman named Cassandra Morton. She had last been seen Oct. 10 in Lynchburg, one week before Harrington disappeared. Few online news reports included this detail or named her as a possible connection to the discovered human remains.
But Morton’s name became news when her body was identified Dec. 1. At that point, most online stories that covered this new information redirected their focus from the missing Virginia Tech student to the possibly murdered Morton. One, however, persisted with its local angle. The Roanoke Times’ online publication, Roanoke.com, devoted two-thirds of its Dec. 1 story to background information on Harrington while simply reporting Morton’s name, age and date last seen alive.
“Certain missing cases are just incredible news stories,” said Caesar Andrews, visiting professor in ethics at the University of Nevada, Reno, and former executive editor of the Detroit Free Press. “This is regardless of how coverage fares in other incidents, regardless of racial and ethnic contrasts in other cases. Journalists can chase a single story without always trying to calibrate what it means when weighed against previous or future coverage of other cases.”
Unlike the high-profile Harrington disappearance, Morton’s case received scant news coverage from its outset. Only a handful of stories reported her missing, and not until a month after she disappeared. In mid-November, WSET in Lynchburg ran a 15-second report with Morton’s photo. And on Nov. 12, three online stories reported Morton missing — running 78, 84 and 103 words in length. Dave Thompson, public safety reporter of The News & Advance in Lynchburg, said the information for his piece came from a police news release. Because of the sensitive nature of missing persons cases, “We generally like to run those basically straight from the news releases,” Thompson said. Further reporting, he said, is “discretionary, depending on the supervisor.”
Thompson’s editor did not recall the details for that story but spoke in general about reporting decisions. Time and effort are weighed against “25 different things that reporter could be doing at that moment,” said Caroline Glickman, The News & Advance city editor.
Many felt the reporting on Morton was not only too little, but that it was too late. Even though Morton’s mother had reported her missing Oct. 14, police chose to wait nearly four weeks before releasing information to the media. Capt. Todd Swisher of the Lynchburg Police Department said a detective first had to “work through a series of viable possibilities regarding her whereabouts,” which included ruling out that she may have been hiding, or had left the area.
The time lag did not appear out of the ordinary to Lynchburg journalists. Glickman said, “In general, it’s not at all unusual for a person to go missing and for us not to hear about it for some time.”
But the public saw it differently. WSET’s online forum, ABC13 Talkback, attracted 22 comments in 24 hours for the story, “Campbell County Remains Identified.” Nearly half were critical of what they perceived as under-reporting of Cassandra Morton while she was missing.
“Although Im [sic] not going to jump the gun and say its [sic] a racial issue, it is some kind of concern to me why she was only exposed missing on WSET 1 [sic] time,” wrote LilMsSunshine.
“They should’ve been flashing her picture just as much. Someone could have helped her or known she was missing if it was one [sic] the news more than one time,” wrote browneyes1.
Others noted the discrepancy between the Morgan Harrington publicity and the dearth of news about Cassandra Morton.
“…seems like we heard about the missing VT student over and over again like she was some personality or something at the same time ignoring others in the area who also are missing,” wrote DirtRat.
“Why didn’t she get the same coverage as morgan [sic] shes [sic] somebodys [sic] child also,” posted melting.
Decisions by law enforcement to hold information about Morton, and by Lynchburg media to report only what police provided, contributed to the coverage of her disappearance. None of those stories included details about Morton’s life, nor did they make any reference to her relatives. Conversely, Harrington’s parents have garnered the media spotlight, from local and network news to Dr. Phil and HLN’s Nancy Grace.
But in the digital age, even a story with a low profile can be illuminated. In this case, Google brought Morton’s disappearance to the attention of Deidra Robey, founder and CEO of Black and Missing but Not Forgotten, a Web site devoted to raising awareness of missing black people.
“I did the usual Google search of ‘missing + black’ and stumbled upon her article,” Robey said. She posted Morton’s information to the Web site, and when Morton’s body was found, Robey followed the news coverage online. The focus on Harrington and lack of attention paid to Morton’s active missing-person motivated Robey to write the commentary, “Found Dead and Ignored: Cassandra Morton (Virginia),” which she posted to the Web site and referenced on Twitter on Dec. 2. In it, she quoted news stories and discussed what she perceived as inadequacies in the reporting. “Cassandra was a loving mother, daughter and sister,” Robey wrote. “She had a family who cared about her. She was not only a victim of foul play but also a victim of the disinterested media.”
Robey’s commentary sparked an online conversation over the next week, through Twitter postings and re-tweets as well as comments on the “Black and Missing but Not Forgotten” Facebook page. The Facebook discussion focused largely on race and economic status:
“…when it comes down to black women going missing no one cares. The news only wants to cover missing white women and that’s all,” Chanel Pretty Pink Anderson wrote.
A posting by Victoria McCord read, “If she was rich and famous, there would have been more media coverage. But because she was not, her death was hardly noticed.”
“Still more proof that if you are not white you do not matter to so many other people. But if Cassandra robbed a gas station she would make the front page in the papers, and lead story on the news at 6 & 11,” Lisa Harding wrote.
Ethics professor Andrews explained that the treatment of individuals in the news is “complex, nuanced and often contradictory.”
“By the time the topic turns to news coverage of missing people, the script is often preordained,” he said. “The same news media capable of reflecting the majority society’s unevenness in general is capable of doing likewise when sorting out missing coverage. If it is true that missing whites often get fuller treatment in the news, that would not be inconsistent with what happens regarding any number of other coverage topics.”
Online comments and social media discussions served to highlight perceived shortcomings and inequity in covering the Morton and Harrington cases. How did journalists involved in these stories respond?
“I see their point,” WSLS’ Leamon said regarding Robey’s “Found Dead and Ignored” critique. But, he added, “I don’t think race drives the reporting as much as some people would like to think.” If an African-American student from Virginia Tech had disappeared at a concert, he felt she would get “just as much publicity.” Virginia Tech continues to draw media attention following the April 2007 shooting rampage that killed 33 people.
Did the comments on WSET’s talkback forum make an impact on the news team and subsequent coverage of the Morton story? “I didn’t really look at those comments,” said WSET crime reporter Jeremy Mills. “We were short staffed and I was out working.”
The station’s news director, Bill Foy, explained, “We’re probably not the poster child for viewer feedback.” Foy said he doesn’t require a daily report on the viewer forum, but he noted that the comments don’t exist in a vacuum. “If a viewer says ‘You missed the boat on this,’ I think that we will take that to heart in our meetings and say, ‘What happened there — should we go back and review that?’”
Foy’s team decided to seek out Morton’s relatives for a follow-up story. However, he notes the decision was not driven by online comments. “This is what we needed to do, to see what they had to say.”
But gaining the family’s cooperation posed a tough challenge. Mills said that when he knocked on the door to the house where Morton’s sister lived, the man who answered said, “Get the hell out of here.”
Other reporters met with similar resistance. Thompson of The News & Advance said the family clearly “did not want to speak with reporters.”
But they did eventually speak to Mills. He gained the family’s trust through his cameraman, R.J. Nelson, who had grown up two neighborhoods over. Mills said the interviews would have been impossible without Nelson. “He’s African American; he knows everyone in the community.”
The Morton family’s reluctance to speak extended beyond media to law enforcement. “Suffice it to say the mother and father refused to meet with me to give the background on their daughter,” said investigator Mike Milnor of the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office. “They threw me off the front porch of the house.”
In contrast, Gil and Dan Harrington willingly reached out to police and the public when their daughter disappeared, and continue to do so even after her body was found Jan. 26. The Harrington Web site, findmorgan.com, continues to link to police e-mail and includes a tip-line number and information about a $150,000 reward. A discussion forum includes more than 16,000 posts, and there’s a news story repository and family blog. Their Facebook page has upwards of 33,000 members, and on Twitter, more than 800 followers.
But the Cassandra Morton murder investigation is taking place primarily outside the digital arena. Milnor said that if a victim used Facebook or Twitter before going missing, then digital tools would play more of a role in the investigation. But for Morton, that apparently wasn’t the case. “Morton was more of a street person,” Milnor said, “not a lot of digital aspects to her life.”
Regardless of a crime victim’s level of engagement with technology, social media now provide citizens a venue for voicing dissatisfaction with news coverage of missing women. Twitter, Facebook, blogs and user comments have given a voice to the once voiceless, offering a forum for public discourse on issues that in the past had largely been relegated to academia for analysis. It remains to be seen if and how news organizations respond to, or utilize, social media toward social responsibility.
Claudette Guzan Artwick, Ph.D., is associate professor of journalism and mass communications at Washington and Lee University and author of “Reporting and Producing for Digital Media.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or @artwickc on Twitter.