By: Uncovered Staff

The Charley Project Map and Meaghan Good

Last week, the Columbia Journal Review (CJR) released an article discussing how the media coverage of missing people is nuanced, and often not equal. The discussion around the inequality that exists in the media coverage of the missing is nothing new, but the real impact of this slanted perspective is largely unknown.

So, the CJR set out to understand the scope of the problem.

Along with their in-depth article, they released a website calculator that seeks to answer: Are You Pressworthy?

Before diving into the innovative tool, let’s discuss the blaring inequality that makes the calculator revolutionary.

The Media’s Compass: News Value Hierarchy

We know that when someone goes missing, it is essential to report it as soon as possible.

Once reported, sharing the individual’s story and getting the word out to the public is necessary for getting someone home as quickly and safely as possible. Social media has made this task faster and easier for families — but at the end of the day, local and national media coverage remains invaluable. But, it’s not always up to families if someone’s story gets coverage. 

The hierarchy of news values looks at relevance, unexpectedness, and often, negativity to drive views and shares. 

Taking these values, and then for example, thinking about two cases competing for air time: a young girl violently snatched from her front yard will hit more of the news cycle values than a story of an older man who wandered off from a caretaker.

Case circumstances don’t just impact newsworthiness…demographics do too. 

If you’ve been on Twitter at all this year, you’ve surely seen the concept of “Missing White Woman Syndrome” highlighted. Let’s talk about it.

The concept of “missing white woman syndrome” is used to highlight the disparity of media coverage amongst people of color. The term was created by late PBS reporter, Gwen Ifill during the 2004 Unity: Journalists of Color conference. It was a casual remark, but it left a mark… because it was true.

Gwen talks about how when a white woman goes missing, it is instantly “newsworthy”. 

The cycle has yet to break, but social media has slowly started to offset the lack of coverage for people of color. 

“This particular cycle of missing-white-woman story, self awareness and mild corrective effort was happening 15 years ago,” the Washington Post details. “It’s happening now, a tidal loop that won’t break unless journalists try something new.” 

The Gabby Petito case is an example that many people use when talking about this concept.  

As news of her disappearance broke, her story dominated the airwaves for weeks — and it even motivated thousands of people to turn their true crime interst into advocacy. So many people stepped in to help find Gabby, that in the nine days that they searched for her body, searchers discovered the remains of at least nine other people.

While their efforts are celebrated, other skeptics ask, if these other nine people had been given equal media coverage, would they have been found sooner? We will never know.

Regardless, all of these remains were found because of collective impact. Advocates don’t want to diminish what it took to find Gabby Petito — or worse, villanize her and her story. Instead, they’re simply asking that the same intense energy that the country felt for Gabby is felt for each missing person. 

How much coverage are you worth?

 

Asking yourself the question of “am I newsworthy?” is daunting. Thankfully, experts with the Columbia Journalism Review set out to understand the scope of the problem. 

Working with the ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day/New York, the researchers sampled 3,600 articles about missing people that appeared last year, between January and November of 2021. Within that dataset, they only looked at US news organizations, including TV, radio, newspapers, and online outlets to get a clearer picture here in America.

After that, the researchers then matched that sample with age, gender, and race classifiers tracked by NamUs.

“What we found shows how little has changed in the past two decades,” the CJR experts note. “If you’re young, white, female, and a resident of a big city, the coverage you’d receive if you went missing is vastly out of proportion.”

To highlight the scale of the problem their newsworthiness tool that was created to calculate the number of news stories a person would receive if they were to go missing based on demographics. 

The tool asks you for your age, location and ethnicity. Once calculated, the tool will break down which media outlets are more likely to cover your story. 

“Our hope is to force change from readers and viewers,” CJR concluded. “[P]ut pressure on your local newsroom when you see gaps in the coverage of your own community, so we won’t be back having the same conversation twenty years from now.”

#EverybodyisNewsworthy. 

 


 

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