Sinkholes are common occurrences in Guatemala City and Tampa.
So while national and international sites focus on the size, amazing roundness, and seemingly mysterious appearance of car-swallowing sinkholes, Tampa Bay locals want to know more practical things – like what insurance company will cover the damage, says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, which is near Tampa.
“I live in a place where sinkholes occur every month,” she says. “They swallow cars all the time here.”
Media reaction to the Guatemala sinkhole became so frenzied that one newspaper, the English-language Guatemala Times, soon refused to publish any additional stories about the sinkhole, citing more important issues to cover.
Spanish-language newspaper La Hora, however, continues to run about one story a week on the sinkhole to update residents on the municipality’s status in addressing the 66-feet-wide, 100-feet-deep hole in the center of the city.
“It is important because there are many people who have had to leave their houses. It could happen again if not given appropriate attention,” says staff reporter Mariela Castañón.
She adds that house-swallowing sinkholes may seem phenomenal to outsiders, but they’re common in Guatemala, where streets cave in and poorly constructed homes collapse regularly.
The difference between local and non-local coverage of the sinkhole is due in part to the increasing use of search engines as a tool for news sites to generate web traffic. The phrase “Tampa sinkhole” was a trending term on Yahoo this week, which itself sparked a number of related web posts.
In a further sign of search engines as news aggregators, this month Yahoo introduced a news blog that writes articles based in part on queries placed on its search engine.
The risk here, says Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, it that editors will lose track of their target audience and their news will be "diluted by broader search traffic."
Richard Wald, a professor of professional practice in media and society at Columbia University, agrees that sinkhole-type stories must be played by editors on a case-by-case, newspaper-by-newspaper basis. What's normal for some people – like a sinkhole – is bizarre and interesting to others, he notes.
"There’s no such thing as a rule. It’s a question of judgments," Professor Wald says in a telephone interview.
But reliance on search engines for story ideas, he adds, overlooks an important role of the media in informing the public.
“What Google will tell you is what everyone knows. What Google won’t tell you is what people don’t know. What do newspapers deal in? What people don’t know.”
“The public isn’t thinking about things they don’t know."
"I think the whole media is a sinkhole," she quips.