Did 'podunk' location mean Alabama hostage crisis got less media coverage?

Chicago Sun-Times | Our Man in Chicago

Sun-Times digital editor Marcus Gilmer writes that had the hostage crisis that just ended in Alabama "happened in a large city - New York, Dallas, even, God forbid, Chicago - the coverage would be constant, a 24-hour surveillance with every media outlet descending on the city."

Jimmy Lee Dykes allegedly stormed a schoolbus, shot its driver and took a 5-year-old boy hostage in an underground bunker for days. Agents stormed the bunker and killed Dykes on Monday. What more did cable news need?

The police had asked representatives of local media outlets to keep as much of a lid on the story as they could, Gilmer allows, but he says that still doesn't explain its second-banana status in the national news cycle. Sun-Times readers weren't rabid consumers of news about the standoff, he notes:

It's hard to imagine someone in Chicago, a city plagued by its own problems of violence and innocent victims, caring much about what they perceive is some crazy redneck with a shotgun in some podunk Alabama town. (To be fair, my following of the case was heightened by the fact I'm an Alabama native.) ...

And while we certainly saw a bump in readership on the stories about the Midland crisis posted on our website, it still didn't overcome the amount of readers heading towards other stories, both understandable (Hadiya Pendleton) and trivial (anything involving Super Bowl commercials).

Undeniably, a heavily populated metropolitan area teeming with journalists would produce more coverage of a bizarre crime like the one allegedly perpetrated in Midland City, Ala.

The Dothan (Ala.) Eagle had what appears to be the first print hit on the story. That paper is owned by Berkshire Hathaway. Advance's three Alabama newspapers, the closest of which is 190 miles away, followed within hours. The crisis began on Jan. 29 and competed for media oxygen with the Super Bowl, immigration reform and -- yep -- gun violence in Chicago. In fact, the type of coverage Gilmer thinks would have been appropriate might well have produced an opposite reaction -- Why are we spending so much time on a story with so few updates?

Here are some of the daily headlines from the crisis:

Jan. 30: "Alabama hostage crisis continues; 5-year-old victim still locked in bunker"

Jan. 31: "No change this morning as the Midland City hostage situation enters its 40th hour"

Feb. 1: "Hostage negotiators proceeding carefully"

Feb. 2: "In Midland City hostage standoff, a fifth day, and no change"

Feb. 3: Ala. Sheriff: Boy held dostage in bunker has toys

With updates like that, can you imagine the tenor of more coverage? Scott Smith has some ideas about why this standoff didn't dominate the news for a week. Here's one more: The Alabama story, though bizarre, sadly has plenty of competition for a national conversation-starter on guns. Slate has compiled a database of gun deaths in the U.S. since Newtown. At the time I write this, it records 23 kids as having been killed by gun violence after that incident.

Related: Brief history of long-running police standoffs (AP)

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


Related News

Email IconGroup 3Facebook IconLinkedIn IconsearchGroupTwitter IconGroup 2YouTube Icon