In the summer of 2005, major news networks were running a seemingly endless barrage of stories about Natalee Holloway the 18-year-old, who had gone missing while on a graduation trip in Aruba. After months of coverage, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper was fed up. There had been no substantive updates in the case, and yet networks kept running stories. He showed a montage of clips, including one of then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly referring to the case as “a soap opera” and “a reality show.” “It’s getting downright ridiculous,” Cooper said, before telling viewers he was done talking about the Holloway case until there was actual news. More than 18 years later, the Holloway case is back in the headlines. On Wednesday, 36-year-old Joran van der Sloot confessed to killing her on an Aruban beach because she had rejected his sexual advances. Van der Sloot’s admission brought some finality to a story that dominated the airwaves nearly two decades ago.
The coverage of Holloway's disappearance played into a centuries-old trope that University of Maryland journalism Prof. Mark Feldstein calls the “maiden-in-peril narrative,” an idea that in recent years has gained traction as the “missing White woman syndrome.," reports the Washington Post. The saturation coverage that dominated headlines and airwaves “tells us a lot about what we care about as a society and who we are as a society,” Feldstein said. The media have used the “maiden-in-peril” formula for nearly 200 years, since newspapers made an “instant sensation” of Helen Jewett, a New York City sex worker who was brutally killed in a bordello. News of Black people who disappeared was muted, even though they make up 13 percent of the population and 31 percent of missing persons cases, according to American University. News organizations produce those stories, in part, because people read and watch them, and that means more money from advertisers. As long as news organizations are for-profit businesses, they’re going to consider what sells in addition to how a story impacts the lives of its readers, Feldstein said, adding, “It’s all about the bottom line.”