The Bullpen of New York University’s Department of Journalism provides an illustrative tale for anyone wondering about the lack of coverage of the LaVena Johnson case in the mainstream media. Alexandra Zendrian recounts a sobering story told by Vanessa Bush, executive editor of Essence:
Sometimes conflicts of interest arise when editors plan to run a story that involves an advertiser. Bush shared one such situation with students. The story in question was a wrongful death case involving the U.S. Army. Essence wanted to run an article in their February 2006 issue about Private First Class LaVena Johnson, who the Army said had shot and killed herself. But Johnson’s family was convinced that she had been brutally beaten, and intended to bring a wrongful death case against the Army. Because the Army is one of Essence’s biggest advertisers, the magazine had to consider whether running the article was worth the risk of losing the Army’s valuable advertising dollars.
In the end, they struck a compromise: the Army agreed to continue advertising in Essence and simply pulled their ads from that month’s issue. But it was a close call, Bush said, adding that “advertisers will walk away in a heartbeat.”
It is to the credit of Essence and its editors that the story made its way to print, but the “closeness” of the call is troubling. It is disturbingly easy to imagine other media outlets choosing to look the other way, ignoring LaVena’s story in the name of advertising dollars.