Making Public Drama:
Telling a Good Story
Public drama has become an effective framework for packaging and presenting news amid the clutter of the modern media, particularly television. Audiences find news in this format to be appealing because of its entertainment-like quality; that is, it is simplistic and story driven and offers a collection of compelling images and characters. Media officials and news workers enjoy packaging news as public drama because it is relatively easy to put together and inexpensive to produce. Once the story is established, it can often be communicated with a mixture of anchor/reporter commentary, interviews, stock footage, and wire reports. Moreover, the fact that a public drama can provide a sustainable source of news content for an extended period of time adds to its appeal as well.
Examples of this form of news coverage can be found in recent news cycles of the mainstream media: the O. J. Simpson trial; the investigation into the disappearance of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey; the disappearance of Chandra Levy; the right-to-life saga of Terri Schiavo; the search for the missing Laci Peterson and the subsequent trial of her husband, Scott, for her murder; the “Runaway Bride”; Hurricane Katrina; and the abduction and suspected murder of Natalee Holloway while on a graduation trip in Aruba. Even more recently, regular viewers of television news programs have been inundated with stories and reports about the disappearance of Caylee Anthony.
In many ways, the Caylee Anthony case was the quintessential public drama. It featured many of the news elements that attract news producers and appeal to the media’s audience. It offered a sustainable story arc, filled with the suspense of criminal activity and an ongoing investigation, as well as the tragedy of a child victim and the horror of a mother’s potential culpability in the death of her child. The story of Caylee Anthony enjoyed a great deal of institutional support across the entire spectrum of network and cable news programs.1 On any given night (or morning) in the summer and fall