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.

10 thoughts on “The media and missing people

  1. Emily December 25, 2008 / 3:02 am

    It’s a crying shame that the disappearances of some people are judged to be more newsworthy than others, but at least there are webmasters and -mistresses like yourself, and those running the Doe Network, trying to get the word out about the forgotten missing. What you do is a great service to loved ones of the missing and law enforcement alike.

  2. Cattt December 29, 2010 / 1:49 pm

    I knew about alot of what was written except the “beautiful ppl” part.

  3. sonia harris November 1, 2011 / 8:38 am

    Im jyrine oldest cousin. I have many question about what happend to him that night. The pain in my heart is is horrible. He was 2 at the time. He couldnt defend himself or run away from whom ever took him. I loved and still love him as if he was my own. He was and still is my lil buddy. I wish i had the money to get my aunt more help to find him. I dont feel the police or anyone else is taking the time out to find him or any other black child in this world. What do money have to do with the lost of many of these kids that is missing out there. Everything in life isnt free but to help a missing child or person should be priceless. It been 10 years no one knows nothing. I really dont believe that at all. Everyone is so worried about our president and who is going to be our next one. Til they loose site of the world and what is wrong in it. There is no greater pain any parent can feel than the lost of their child missing or in death. The question is why would anyone take a child if the family has money or not. Everyday i play back that day and wish i would have stayed home or took him with me. I know my aunt live it and i see her pain. I wish someone or anyone tell her what happend that night. I wish someone would take the time out and tell any parent with a missing child why. For the people or person that do this is your life better or you happy making people feel so low and so much pain. Jyrine is very so miss i wish for the day the truth come out and he is found. I dont know what this would do by saying all this but its been time someone say how they feel about this for ones. The greatest gift will always be a childs love for their parents. Can someone tell me if or when he is found will he still have that love for his mother? I know he will have a million question thats going to be hard for anyone to answer. I just want my aunt pain to go away.

    Thank You

    • SammyG May 7, 2014 / 3:52 am

      I read your post and I really pray you get answers one day. I can tell you loved your little cousin so much and it’s a damn shame that the media didn’t cover Jyrine’s case. Given his age and medical condition he should have gotten lots of coverage to help find him.

  4. libraryjobber April 21, 2014 / 4:41 pm

    Laci Peterson was 27 when she disappeared (born May 4, 1975)

    • Meaghan April 21, 2014 / 4:43 pm

      Where did I get 32 then? Shrug. I’ll fix it.

  5. Peter Henderson Jr. April 22, 2014 / 8:04 am

    Meaghan, while you wrote this several years ago it pretty much spot on.

    Next to black adult males the group of people who receive they least coverage are probably working girls, of all ages, races, and previous social standing. If the best photo police have is a mug shot and there is no concrete evidence of foul play they will be lucky to get any media coverage, unless body’s or bones start turning up like so much cord wood.

    Hence in most cases their Charley Project profiles are only a few sentences long. A few short paragraphs at most. Similar to the four sentences for Carina Lynn Karras.

    In the age of social media you can sometimes get a glimpse into who they were, but few reporters would find that information news worthy. Here is how I filled out my profile for Carina

    Carina Lynn Karras, 20, was last seen on December 31, 2005. She lived in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois at the time. Carina, called Carrie by family and friends, was supposed to meet a friend and move with them to Las Vegas, Nevada. The last reported sighting of Carrie was boarding a Metra Train in Grayslake, Illinois which is located about 40 miles north of Chicago’s downtown . She never met the friend and has not been seen or heard from since.

    Carrie’s NamUs profile ( MP # 1359) shows various mug shot photo’s of her indicating that she had been arrested on at least four occasions. No information is available as to the nature of those arrests.

    Carrie has a MySpace page that she last updated at 3:27 am. on December 8, 2005, with a blog post titled “ Where have all the cowboys gone?” Since then her page has been inactive.

    On MySpace she says that she was born on June 30, 1985 in Park Ridge, Illinois, a affluent Chicago suburb, and is of Greek heritage. She lists he interests as dancing and says she would like to work in the entertainment industry.

    Carrie posted several pictures of herself on MySpace. In one she is holding a cat and is wearing jeans and a black jacket similar to the attire that she was reportedly last seen wearing.

    Other photos are potentially ominous. In one Carrie is sitting on a windowsill wearing a low cut v-neck sweater and short skirt. She is holding a number of one hundred dollar bill’s in front of her in the fashion of a old time fan. Two men can be seen in that photo taking additional photo’s of Carrie on their cell-phones. Another is a rear view torso shot with Carrie hiking her skirt in a suggestive fashion. It is spliced with a photo of a man smiling and using a computer.

    Carrie is listed as endangered missing because of the length of time since she has contacted anyone and the lifestyle she may have been living.

    About Carrie

    • Meaghan April 22, 2014 / 9:17 am

      It’s interesting to see the social media profiles and other internet trails of MPs before they went missing. With one guy, I Googled his name and found an essay he’d written, some years before he disappeared, about his experience serving in the Peace Corps (or some similar volunteer program, I forget). Another example is Hyun Jong “Cindy” Song, whose personal website I found. She liked to write poetry and posted a few verses just two or three days before she went missing. (The site is no longer extant.) To say nothing of people’s Facebook pages nowadays.

  6. drycamp April 22, 2014 / 9:37 am

    Some of this makes sense. An adult, especially an older one of 40 or over, may very well have decided to leave on his or her own motion. After all, such people are entitled to go wherever they want to, and don’t have to account to anyone. Do they deserve a lot of media attention? The ones who left voluntarily don’t want it.

    A family abduction….that’s a family fight, usually an ugly divorce. As a stranger I feel hesitant about taking sides, even though the non-custodial parent is legally in the wrong. “Working girls” are living a very high-risk life style, whether voluntarily or not. They continually put themselves in danger and it is hard to see what strangers can do about that. Kids who look like they ran away….maybe they did. If so they’re going to be hard to find. People who drop off the face of the earth? We don’t have much to work with in that case.

    The media’s preferences for race and beauty are harder to justify. In fact white people in general tend to have more power, which should justify paying more attention to missing people of color.

    • Meaghan April 22, 2014 / 9:49 am

      Tamika Huston, a (no longer) missing black person who was featured on the Charley Project, got considerable media attention. Not as much as Elizabeth or Laci, but she was featured on national media. Much of it, however, was in the vein of “Why has Tamika Huston, a black person, got less attention than missing white women?” Tamika was also quite attractive and relatively light-skinned. See this article for example:

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