Media and Missing Persons

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Some missing person cases are all over the national media while others are completely neglected. ASU Broadcast Journalism Professor Craig Allen discusses how the National Media chooses which missing person cases to cover.

Ted Simons: It's been more than two weeks since 5-year-old Jahessye Shockley of Glendale disappeared. The local coverage started immediately, but the national media didn't pick up the story until the girl's grandmother complained that it was being ignored because Jahessye is African-American. But is that a factor in how the national media decides which missing person cases to cover? For analysis we go to Craig Allen, a broadcast journalism professor at Arizona State University. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Craig Allen: Thank you, Ted.

Ted Simons: How does the media in general, we're generalizing here, but how does the media decide which missing person -- child, adults, how do you decide?

Craig Allen: Well, I think an important distinction here is local versus national media. As you pointed out, the local media have extensively covered this. I think that is largely from the perspective that getting the word out might help return the child. When you elevate this to the national level, many additional factors come into play. Because there are so vast and larger number of cases. To reach the agenda of the national level, many different things go into it. Just essentially, in brief, they have to do with communication that's gone on between the captors, whether ransom, that ransom has been promoted, that's a huge factor, especially whether the police have made an appeal to the media. Another factor I must say is the appeal of the victim, of the person that's unfortunately been captured. A cute little kid will largely make it in the news.

Ted Simons: The story it seems to me again, on a national level, they seem to either take a life of their own and move almost with speed no one can control, or they just don't get traction. Again, is there a rhyme or reason why -- this is a cute little girl, a missing girl, but I thought something you mentioned was interesting, no one seems to have a clue? No one seems to have much of a hint except for unfortunately some problems in the family past. Is that a factor?

Craig Allen: Umm… I think that could be a factor. But in terms of getting these cases before the American public, even the world, the world public, many additional things have to fall into place. A lot of it has to do with what immediately happens after the case. Such as the JonBenét Ramsey case, the case of Madeleine McCann a few years ago where there was an eye witness to what occurred. All those things have to -- can come into play to cause the snowball to roll, and the story feeds on itself and suddenly it's a cause celeb.

Ted Simons: Is the family background a factor? Do you think in terms of, again, general national media coverage.

Craig Allen: It's a hard question to answer, because there have been so many recent cases where that has come into play, notably the Ramsey case. But I don't think the media is looking for a family background factor as a hook on the news story. I think initially they're looking, can they help bring the child back, and then the first 24 hours, if the police have gone to the media, if there's been a communication with the captors that will start it on its way.

Ted Simons: Its interesting you mention the police, how the police respond to an incident, really do make a difference in terms of how the media responds, doesn't it?

Craig Allen: Absolutely. And these cases are very sensitive, and the reporters, the people in the news media aren't insensitive idiots. When police give directions on how this case could go good or bad, media will respond to that.

Ted Simons: Is the grandmother in this case, she says race is a factor. Could that be a factor? Is that possible, on the national level again?

Craig Allen: I would say this -- I think we're all sympathetic to the concern. It would be great if this could get in the national media, get on BBC, get on Al Jazeera, the whole world knows this child is missing. We love that. Because that help the recovery prospects. And there might be some semblance of an argument because of the fact most of the very few cases have to do with blonde haired Caucasian sweet little kids. Those have been the ones that have been singled out. The facts of the case reveal that there are far too many cases that don't get covered to generalize. Just for example, just before I came in I went on the website center for missing -- center for missing children, and there were 13 cases they have on -- showcased today. The Glendale case being one of them. 13 total cases that -- seven are white, three are black, two are Hispanic, and one classified as American Indian. And none of them have gotten publicity.

Ted Simons: And that brings us back full circle. Why? Why JonBenét Ramsey, why the Casey Anthony-- when you have murder involved or attempted murder, obviously the dynamic changes, but you just wonder why? And again, is the national media reflecting our interests? If we're not interested, they're not interested.
Craig Allen: Well, I think, again, there's a distinction between local and network. I think the media here; the English and Spanish news providers in Phoenix get into these cases and -- in part because they need news material, but also because of the possibility that blowing the story out will help recover the child. So I think that do -- I think there's that level of concern here. But to get this into the national agenda, you've got to have a bigger -- something bigger, something more interesting than that. And I look -- again, just briefly in looking at this before coming in here tonight, I've gone back over the last 15, 20 years, there have really only been about five or six hugely profiled cases that I think are impression of this topic is generated by six or seven cases like that. When if you look at the statistics, according to what I've seen, there's 797 missing children cases each year, so how would you -- how would you generalize?

Ted Simons: Real quickly, ratings? Impact, national, network, cable?

Craig Allen: That's what I'm saying. You need the ratings, the really high appealing stories. And unfortunately, not everyone, every case is going to do it.

Ted Simons: All right. Good stuff. Thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.
Craig Allen: Thanks Ted.

Craig Allen:ASU Professor, Broadcast Journalism;

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