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Monday, July 18, 2011

Most missing persons don't get media spotlight

Most missing persons don't get media spotlight
The disappearance of Indiana University student Lauren Spierer has drawn extensive media attention, but that's the exception rather than the rule in missing persons cases. 

The Indianapolis Star reported Sunday that most of the hundreds of thousands who go missing each year vanish without a peep of publicity. Only a fraction are missing for more than a few days, but their cases compete for attention from the media and the public and the limited time of overworked police. 

The Star says relatives who want to find their loved ones often discover that what makes the news can depend on race, class and social status.

For most missing persons' families, the void of attention makes their disappearance a private ordeal.

"Some of these families just don't know the steps, and they face roadblocks when they try to get a response from the media," said Gaétane Borders, president of Peas in Their Pods, a group that tracks missing black children and adults.

WTHR news director Keith Connors said the deciding factor in coverage of missing people is the amount of community interest and involvement.

"In the Spierer case, we are talking about huge search parties, divers and a large amount of involvement by the community," said Connors, who assigned reporters to the story around the clock for two weeks after Spierer disappeared in downtown Bloomington. "It is the largest university in Indiana, and a lot of parents of a lot of kids down there wanted to know what's going on."

Jonathan Rossing, an assistant professor at IUPUI, said connections, determination and organization help get media coverage. But he said there are other factors, too.

"It has to be a compelling story," Rossing said. "There is a bias toward stories that are unexpected. Where the audience says, `How can that happen in my neighborhood?' A missing person of color from an impoverished area is not as exciting for a large portion of the audience to hear about, nor do they want to hear about it.

"But it doesn't mean we are all racists, and saying only pretty white girls get coverage is simplistic," he said. "But it does mean we have a bias toward race and class and privilege."

The family of 23-year-old Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis student Molly Dattilo launched a media blitz when she disappeared in 2004. She is still missing.

"It is up to the family to keep pushing," said Keri Dattilo, 37, Molly's cousin. "You have to keep coming up with new ideas to keep it in the news, anything to get another story out and keep their face in the news."

Neatrice Billingsly, whose son Jason Thomas Ellis went missing in Indianapolis in 2006 at the age of 20 amid a lack of coverage, said race and class have a lot to do with media coverage.

"Unfortunately, people stigmatize each other according to where you are from, what you are and your nationality," said Billingsly, an African-American who lives in Gary. "It's just another black child missing a lot of the time." 

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