Lessons to be learned from the media circus

I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “media circus” lately. I’ve heard it applied to all sorts of crime-related stories I’ve covered during my decades as a reporter.

Lately, the expression cropped up during the near wall-to-wall coverage of the Gabby Petito missing person/homicide case. I also heard it applied recently to the widespread reportage on pop star Britney Spears’ fight against her father’s court-sanctioned control over her life.

When uttered, those two words — “media circus” — are usually accompanied by a dramatic eye roll and a sarcastic sneer. Slapping that label on a story is akin to giving the public permission to ignore the core importance of the case at hand.

That’s a shame.

Take the case of Petito, whose body was ultimately found in a national forest in Wyoming where she had been traveling with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie. The medical examiner determined Gabby’s cause of death was strangulation, and as every detective will tell you, that is a common denominator in violent domestic abuse cases.

There is a lesson to be learned there. Think about it. Anyone — female or male — who is firmly caught by the throat is immediately disabled. It is the ultimate way to exert power and control over someone. Research into domestic abuse has found that angry but nonlethal asphyxiation is often practiced first; fatal strangulation frequently follows. In fact, studies show that victims of attempted strangulation are seven times more likely to then become a homicide-by-strangulation statistic.

Had Gabby been threatened like that previously? We will likely never know as Brian Laundrie was found dead of a suspected suicide last month.

Gabby’s cause of death is such an important detail to understand for all those caught up in a violence-prone relationship. Yet within the massive number of print and broadcast stories about the Petito case, there was next to nothing mentioned about domestic violence red-flag indicators victims should look out for.

In the saga surrounding Britney Spears, the public heard or read reams of information about her specific conservatorship battle (called guardianship in most states) that centered on the question: If she was so mentally incapacitated, how was she able to earn millions and bankroll so many employees and lawyers for 13 years? We heard about Britney’s forced isolation and her father’s control over nearly every aspect of her professional and personal life, including whether she could marry or have more children.

Could one accurately call the Spears coverage a “media circus”? I suppose so, but that is beside my point. It was, for the most part, shallow reporting that overlooked the bigger picture.

There are at least 1.3 million Americans currently caught up in court-ordered conservatorship or guardianship arrangements. Judges summarily stripped these citizens of their constitutionally protected civil rights and subjected a substantial number of them to victimization by dishonest court appointees. Billions of dollars are siphoned from these so-called conservatees every single year. That is the bigger, often untold, story.

The media industry is a flawed enterprise, but it remains the best bet we have to learn about the criminal element and other hidden corners of our society that we otherwise would not know about. The sometimes carnivallike coverage of certain stories shouldn’t stop us from asking important questions and challenging our own assumptions.

If you think domestic abuse mostly happens in low-income households or to those plagued with drug or alcohol problems, the Petito case should be an eye-opener. These were two seemingly average, fresh-faced kids that both wound up dead and alone in remote areas of our nation.

If you think your civil rights are permanent and absolute, think again. The Spears case was a jarring wake-up call if one reads between the lines. For many, it was a first indication that there is a corrupt and blatantly negligent area within the American justice system that can literally imprison someone and take away their freedoms, their money and their dignity.

Many headline stories can be described as having been brought to you via a “media circus,” but that doesn’t mean they are without valuable takeaways we should pay attention to. Best to put on your critical thinking cap, and look beyond the hype, when digesting what the media feeds you.


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