Race and class can affect coverage, media experts say
OREM—A day after Lori Hacking was reported missing, another Orem girl disappeared.
While Hacking's story garnered national media attention and an outpouring of community support, the disappearance of Felicia Young, 19, barely registered a blip on the public-awareness radar screen.
On Thursday, Young's absence was reported in a newspaper for the first time. Her family complained that despite their best efforts they could not enlist the help of neighbors or news reporters to help find her.
Wednesday afternoon, perhaps because of the news article, Young called her mother to report she was fine and didn't want to be found.
To be sure, the disappearances of Hacking, who is from Orem, and Young are two very different stories—police suspected from the beginning that Young had vanished of her own accord—but they raise an important question: Why do some missing persons cases draw more attention than others?
"We put the same information out on every missing persons case," said Springville Police Lt. Dave Caron. "Why the press picks up some cases and not others, well, that's something to ask the press."
When Elizabeth Smart disappeared from her Salt Lake City home, some news analysts, such as the Poynter Institute's Bob Steele, wondered if her case was receiving too much attention. After all, there are some 2,000 reported cases of missing children per day, according to the National Crime Information Center. Why was her plight more important than that of Alexis Patterson, a 7-year-old Milwaukee girl who disappeared a month before on her way to school?
"Some suggest that race is a key factor. Smart is white. Patterson is black," wrote Steele, the institute's Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values. "I do believe that race, as well as class differences, can factor into how journalists cover the stories of missing children. But the issue is much more complex than that."
"There are a number of reasons why news organizations choose to cover some missing children and not others, and why they devote more attention to some cases."
Steele said much of the media attention a story generates depends on how it breaks. If there is an emotional plea from the family to help find the missing person, as there was in the Hacking case, it is much more likely the public and the media will pay attention. In the Young case, her family didn't report her missing for days because of her history of vanishing for days at a time.
Some police officers are more forthcoming than others, Steele said, which also affects media coverage. The same goes for the families of missing persons—some are media savvy, while others are not.
And some recognize the importance of media attention but do not know how to go about getting it or lack the connections to do so.
"In the end, journalists make decisions on what stories are more interesting," Steele said. "If the story has an edge to it, if there are unusual or sensational details, it's more likely to be covered. I think the Hacking story would have (been a big story) anywhere."
Karen Mayne, spokeswoman for the Provo Police Department, said in her experience the media are helpful in finding a missing person even when the story isn't gripping. A few years back an elderly man wandered away from a Provo rest home and the media aired his story, Mayne said. As with many missing persons cases, the man eventually turned up dead.
Initially in a missing persons case, media attention is helpful, said Springville's Caron, but over time the scrutiny can become burdensome. Caron said he does sense a bias in the types of stories the media choose to cover.
"It's sad, and I hate to say this, but if you have a really cute kid, it's going to get more attention than a kid who looks like his mother is a troll and his dad is a gargantuan with a third arm," he said. "If a black woman in Chicago turned up missing, it's not going to make the news, unless there is something spectacular about the case."
The story goes on to talk about how such things as the way the story breaks (pleas from the family or information from police?), how forthcoming the police are, and even the missing person's own history (has the person been gone for days at a time before?) can affect the way a disappearance is covered by the press.
Orem is about 43 miles from my house, and this story was the first I'd heard about Felicia Young.
It's sad race and class are ever factors in coverage of any news story. I was distressed when I remembered one of my first reactions to Lori Hacking's disappearance—before I knew anything about her background, I thought:
This is just like the Elizabeth Smart case. It's made the news because the missing person is a white female.
The descriptive information at FindLori.com lists Hacking's complexion as "dark," and she looks Hispanic to me. Or is that Latino? I don't know which word to use anymore, and I certainly don't want to offend anyone. But my point is simply that when I saw the photos on the "missing" posters and on the various news stories, my first thought was that she was white, and that's why the story was being covered.
And I'm ashamed by that.