Cases of Missing Women and Young Girls Get Varying Media Attention

Only a percentage of missing girls or women receive national media attention.

March 7, 2010, 8:21 AM

March 7, 2010— -- Chelsea King was the focus of intense media attention and law enforcement effort, with hundreds of officers and thousands of volunteers joining the search for her.

Almost exactly a year earlier and about 10 miles from where King was last seen jogging, 14-year-old Amber Dubois left home to walk to school, never to be seen again. Yet, Dubois' case got far less media attention and seemingly fewer law enforcement resources.

Hundreds of thousands of children are reported missing every year. A hundred or so turn out to be the result of foul play, and only a handful of those get the kind of media scrutiny that King's case got.

Ernie Allen, president of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says the cases that get the most attention tend to involve pre-teen children where it's immediately apparent that foul play by a stranger, not a family member, is suspected.

"Chelsea's case received enormous media attention because it was dramatic and sensational. The child goes jogging in a park area and doesn't come home. With Amber Dubois, nobody saw her disappear, and there's no tangible physical evidence," Allen said. "She just disappeared."

There have been countless high-profile cases involving young girls, including the disappearances of Caylee Anthony, Jessica Lunsford, Somer Thompson and Madeleine McCann, whose story went global because of her telegenic look and her media-savvy parents.

Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, explains that the reason the media tends to go in a frenzy around these types of cases is really because of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"Once one of these stories is decided to be covered, there's no turning back," Thompson said. "You've sent your reporters and your trucks to it, and you become invested in it. You start building interest in the story, and your audience wants to hear more about it, so you keep everyone there to continue reporting on it."

Critics Site Racial Inequality in Press Coverage

Many African-Americans and Latinos also perceive a racial bias to the coverage. Some believe more attention is paid to missing white children than to black or Hispanic children. Critics point to several examples.

The 2003 kidnap and murder of African-American college student Romona Moore from Brooklyn, N.Y., was eclipsed by the disappearance of Svetlana Aranov, a white woman from Manhattan's Upper East Side .

LaToyia Figueroa, a young African-American and Hispanic woman, who disappeared while pregnant in Philadelphia in 2005, only got a fraction of the news coverage as Natalie Holloway, a white teen who vanished in Aruba around the same time.

Kathy Times, a member of the National Association of Black Journalists explained, "If you're white, wealthy, cute and under 12, then you're more likely to get the eye of the national media."

Quoting from a Scripps Howard study, Times continues, "One study showed that about 35,000 kids went missing one year, and a little more than half of those were white, but about 67 percent of stories covered by The Associated Press were about white children."

And then there was the case of 13-year-old Laura Ayala, a Latina teen, who vanished near her Houston home in 2002 as she went down the block to buy a newspaper for a class assignment.

"The Hispanic media was wonderful," Allen said. "The mainstream media wasn't as interested. Is that because her mom couldn't tell her story in English? I don't know."

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