Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Media | World

September 20, 2007

All 'Maddy,' All the Time

The search for missing Madeleine McCann has consumed the interest of the British media and public.

Michael Gluckstadt

The biggest story of the summer in Britain has been the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, a four-year-old girl who went missing while vacationing with her parents in Portugal in May. Since the disappearance was first reported, the British press has continuously reported on the evolving investigation and dissected statements made by everyone from her parents to the police to politicians to even tangentially related celebrities. A Gelf survey of nine daily newspapers found that during a 10-day period, the McCann story has been featured on the front page of 70 percent of the major British papers.

The Daily Express has devoted every single cover from the last week to coverage of the McCann case.

Child abduction media frenzies are not a new phenomenon. From the Lindbergh baby to JonBenét Ramsey to Elizabeth Smart, missing children have always touched a nerve with the public. The interesting thing about this story is how thoroughly it has dominated—and been dominated by—the British print press. It is a throwback to a time when newspapers set the news agenda. In an age of real-time internet news and 24-hour cable news networks, it seems almost quaint to read screaming headlines on newspapers. But in Britain, things are different. People in London have a voracious appetite for newspapers. They'll read multiple papers in the morning, and then the Evening Standard on the way back from work. It's a real newspaper town, where a newspaper story can take on a life of its own.

The McCann story continues to play out in the front pages like a twisted soap opera. Accusations of foul play have been hurled at the parents and the police, and the stranger the story becomes, the more coverage it gets. Its reach has extended beyond a local-interest story into its own media category. (The "Madeleine" news category can be found on the Sky News website, between "UK News" and "World News".) Celebrities like J.K. Rowling have contributed mightily to a fund dedicated to helping find McCann, while the girl's parents have had an audience with the Pope, who promised to pray for her safe return. Even Ben Affleck's directorial debut has been postponed indefinitely, due to some striking similarities between his movie and the McCann case.

The ubiquity of the story is not due to the high volume of newsworthy events—there is only so much that can be said about this case. But every development has been reported as breaking news. What has made this the story of the summer is the prominent placement of the story in British newspapers across the board. For 10 days during the middle of September, Gelf monitored the news coverage of the McCann case in the British press. Here's what we found:

Maddy Chart

Sensationalist tabloids like the Sun and the Daily Mirror have had nearly constant "Maddy" coverage on the front page, over 90% of the time and usually in the form of attention-grabbing headlines such as "Maddy 'Pills Overdose'". The Sun is far and away the most-read newspaper in Britain, followed by the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror (see chart). There is an inverse relationship between quality and circulation in the UK press. [Editor's note: "Tabloid" here refers to the sensationalist content, not the format of the paper, as an increasing number of "quality" papers have changed from broadsheet to tabloid.] The middle-market papers—the Daily Mail and the Daily Express—have been even more comprehensive than the tabloids in their Madeline coverage, perhaps because their middle-class readers identify strongly with the McCanns. The Mail featured a Madeline-related story on the cover every day of the sample group, and the Express has done so every day since August 3.

The higher-quality papers have shown a range of interest. The front pages of the Times and the Daily Telegraph mentioned the story almost every day during the period, usually in the form of small blurbs (though it was the Telegraph's lead story on September 11). The Guardian was at 50% and the Independent, known for its attention-grabbing headlines, seems to have consciously played down its coverage. Meanwhile, the Financial Times has shunned the story on its front pages altogether.

Compared to circulation figures from the same time last year, tabloids have had a much better summer than have the quality papers. How much of that is due to the extensive McCann coverage is debatable, but it is worth noting that the relatively McCann-free Independent has had a bad year, while the Daily Express—sometimes referred to as the "Maddy Express"—is gaining on its rivals.

In some ways the press is self-aware about its excessive coverage of this story. In this Daily Telegraph opinion piece, Conservative MP and journalist Boris Johnson examines why people are so caught up in this story. "There is the simple but awful fact of human nature—the emotional weakness that drives the sale of so many newspapers," he writes. While that may be true, hundreds of equally heartbreaking events occur around the world on a daily basis. What makes this story—and none of the others—into a media behemoth?

There are a number of factors for the McCann dominance. Firstly, media exposure is a valuable tool for the McCanns in their attempt to find their daughter. "They're very media savvy people," says former BBC journalist and manager Tim Fenton (who is also my professor at NYU in London). "Assuming their story is true, it made sense for them to try to maximize publicity. And they showed they know how to work the press." In this sense, the press and its readers feel that printing and reading McCann coverage does a tangible good. If the girl is still alive and happens to set foot in a public area, there is a good chance that she will be recognized on the spot by dozens of strangers. While this is an uplifting thought, and could certainly be a factor, it is probably not the driving force behind the story's continued presence.

"The war in Iraq is still deteriorating and Posh and Becks have crossed the pond. There is no other major story that has the same excitement or extended drama as the McCann saga."
There are other, less positive reasons. The UK coverage occasionally has exhibited an ugly xenophobic streak. Editorials in the Guardian and the Independent have criticized the British media for portraying Portuguese police procedures as inept and inferior to those of Scotland Yard. At a time when multiculturalism at home is redefining what it means to be a Briton, there is a tendency for people to look abroad for something to define themselves against.

The depiction of a bumbling Portuguese police probably stems more directly from a sense of helplessness among those following the case than anything else. Still, the unsavory characterization of a foreign police force recalls the American reaction to the disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba. Also like Holloway's case, the McCann case is a likely symptom of Missing White Women Syndrome, a term used to describe the excessive media coverage devoted to victims who happen to be pretty white girls. In America (The Book), the Daily Show writers conceive of a mock-scientific formula for the amount of press coverage a missing person receives as follows:

MinutesOfCoverage = FamilyIncome * (AbducteeCuteness/SkinColor) ²+ LengthOfAbduction * MediaSavvyOfGrievingParents³

A desire to help out, a distrust of foreign authorities, and M.W.W.S, all may play some role in the disproportionate newspaper coverage, but the fundamental reason is far more basic. "It's the summer," says Fenton. "It's a slow time for news. And the story connects with a lot of middle-class people in Britain." The McCanns were the beneficiaries (and now that certain elements of the press have turned on them, the victims) of a slow news cycle. Gordon Brown has settled in as prime minister, the war in Iraq is still deteriorating, and Posh and Becks have crossed the pond. There is no other major story in the British press that has the same excitement or extended drama as the McCann saga. Fenton also points out that there is a tendency in the British news media to try to own a story. Newspapers commit space and resources to a single event in an effort to be the authority on the issue. When a reader gets sucked into the Daily Telegraph's daily Maddy coverage, she'll keep going back to them for updates. With several newspapers competing to "own" the juiciest story of a lackluster summer, the press begins to feed on itself, and a big story gets even bigger.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

Post a comment

Comment Rules

The following HTML is allowed in comments:
Bold: <b>Text</b>
Italic: <i>Text</i>
<a href="URL">Text</a>


- Media
- posted on Oct 26, 07
kate m

maddy is dead

Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

Learn more about this author


Hate to miss out? Enter your email for occasional Gelf news flashes.


Gelf t-shirt

The picture is on the front of the shirt, the words are on the back. You can be in between.