The media and missing people

I once read a novel about a teen prodigy who tries to come up with a mathematical formula to predict the duration and outcome of romantic relationships. It occurs to me that if you were interested enough, and much better at math than I, you could probably come up with a formula to predict how much media attention a missing person will get.

The world has grown much smaller in recent decades, due mainly to the internet. Every day true crime buffs on web boards discuss cases many hundreds or thousands of miles from their homes. A click of the mouse and you can access thousands of newspapers. The Charley Project has over 7,000 cases on it, and anyone who googles one of the names will find the person’s Charley Project casefile with all the details I can provide. But all the same, it takes a lot for any missing person to become a household word. It only happens to a select few.

A lot of people think it’s just an issue of race, or income. I’ve seen many blog entries saying “This rich/white missing person is all over the news, and this poor/minority person who disappeared around the same time isn’t. Clearly the media is racist/classist.” I don’t think it’s nearly as simple as that, however. Race and income are part of it, of course, but there are many other issues to consider.

I would list the factors in this equation as follows, in no particular order:

  • Race — White people are more likely to get attention than people from minority races.
  • Physical attractiveness — Beautiful people are more likely to get attention.
  • Income — The more wealthy the MP or their family, the better.
  • Social status of MP and/or their family — If you’re a missing boy scout or pregnant housewife, you’re much more likely to become a media darling than, say, a prostitute or a drug addict.
  • Circumstances of disappearance — Runaways and family abduction cases rarely, if ever, receive national attention. People who simply drop off the face of the earth, with no clues one way or another, also tend to get ignored. On the other hand, an obvious stranger abduction (with witnesses) is riveting and tends to draw a lot of interest.
  • Gender — Female missing people get more press. If it’s a very young kid, gender doesn’t matter as much. With adults, though, women have a definite edge.
  • Age — The younger, the better. Little kids get a lot of attention, teenagers less so, unless there’s clear evidence they didn’t run away. Young adults, particularly women in their twenties, get attention. If the MP is over forty, their chances of drawing a lot of news drop precipitously.
  • Social connections of MP and their loved ones — If the MP or their family has a lot of social connections who will help them, like if they belong to a big church, they are more likely to get attention because they have more people to advocate for them. If the missing person is related to someone famous, more to them.

The most common demographic of missing people is a black adult male. I read somewhere that black men make up something like one-third of all adults reported missing in America. But how often do you see them on Nancy Grace?

Two major missing person cases that drew worldwide attention are Laci Peterson and Elizabeth Smart, both of whom disappeared in 2002.

Their stories captivated the United States and made the news abroad as well. One ended happily, the other not: Elizabeth turned up alive and well in the company of a pair of loons who’d been holding her captive for months. Laci’s body, and that of her unborn child, were found floating in the Pacific Ocean, and her husband was convicted of two counts of murder.

Both Laci and Elizabeth had many factors that made them become missing person media darlings. Both were Caucasian, female and quite attractive. Both were young — Laci was 32 27, and Elizabeth just 14. Laci came from a comfortably middle-class family, and Elizabeth’s parents were wealthy and could afford to hire a publicist for her. Both families were considered very respectable and there was no indication of trouble in Laci or Elizabeth’s backgrounds. As for the circumstances of disappearance: Elizabeth was abducted at knifepoint from her bed in the middle of the night. (Her sister witnessed this; otherwise it’s likely Elizabeth would have been written off as a runaway.) Laci, who was seven months pregnant, vanished without a trace on Christmas Eve. Nobody witnessed anything, but right away people assumed something terrible must have happened to her — it seems highly unlikely that a pregnant woman would choose to walk out of her life at Christmas.

The same month Elizabeth disappeared, a little boy named Jyrine Harris disappeared from Irvington, New Jersey. He is still missing. Certainly he was never covered in People magazine or on talk shows. Even within his own region his disappearance was almost unknown. One article I did find lamented the situation:

Aside from [police detective] Malek and a few of Jyrine’s relatives, not many people appear concerned about the boy’s whereabouts.

When the toddler disappeared, the only volunteers who came forward to search for him were off-duty police officers. After a flurry of media coverage, the story has slipped off the pages of newspapers and the evening news. Even with a $20,000 reward put up by the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office for information on Jyrine’s whereabouts, the phone never rings…

What are the differences between a case like Jyrine’s and a case like Elizabeth’s or Laci’s?

Jyrine was very young, only two years old at the time of his disappearance. Males are less likely to get coverage, but not if they’re tiny. He’s African-American, which works against him in the press. He suffers from ostogenesis imperfecta, a brittle bone disease, and had a broken leg when he went missing. Clearly, being a toddler with limited mobility, he didn’t run away from home. But we can’t really rule out anything else. Jyrine’s family was poor and pretty troubled. His father was a heroin addict and wasn’t involved in his life. His mother was in jail when he disappeared; she’d been charged with abusing him. (The charges were later dropped. Jyrine’s mother wrote me at one point and said she’d never harmed her son and that his injuries were due to his disease. I can buy that; babies with ostogenesis imperfecta can get fractures just from having their diapers changed.)

Jyrine lived with his grandmother and eight other people, and his sister’s boyfriend was also at the house the night he disappeared. He was discovered missing at 2:30 a.m., but his disappearance wasn’t reported to police until 5:00 a.m. The little boy’s cousin says Jyrine was abducted from his bed by two men, but the police have treated the family as suspects. Jyrine’s own parents seem to believe someone in the family harmed him. Who can tell what happened? Jyrine’s gender, his race, his family’s poverty and low social status, and the murky circumstances of his disappearance work against him, and it’s extremely sad, because every missing person deserves to be found and that often requires public knowledge of their case.

But if the world was a perfect place, there would be no missing people to start with.