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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
From top: Cassandra Morton; Morgan Harrington; The Harrington family made this flier (and a Spanish version) available to the public and for download on the dedicated search Web site. The presence of fliers and media attention for Cassandra Morton during the same period was considerably less.
courtesy of FindMorgan.com
0 Quill MARCH/APRIL 2010
courtesy of Virginia State Police
courtesy of Lynchburg Police Department
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Quill - March/April 2010
Quill - March/April 2010
Table of Contents
From the President
Hot off the Press
10 with Kelly McBride
Quill Through the Years
White, Black and Missing on Twitter
What is News in the Age of Blog and Tweet?
Words & Language
Quill - March/April 2010