Missing persons reportage in the traditional press and social media outlets

The following is a reply I sent to Rachel MacPherson, a journalism student from University of the West of Scotland.  She was writing her dissertation on the media’s representation of victims of crime, in particular missing person cases, and read my post about Serena Beakhurst and wanted my opinion.  I provided answers to her questions, as shown below.  The topic is an interesting one, as for me it highlights differences in emphasis and approach between traditional journalism outputs and online social media platforms. 

Unlike a lot of community media/alternative media researchers and activists, I still believe there is a place for traditional media platforms such as the already established newspapers and tv news.   The Serena Beakhurst story however highlighted the limitations of traditional media in what it covers and considers to be of interest to their audiences, and online social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs allows for an additional layer of ‘news’ that would not reach the mainstream, and now also informs the editorial decisions of the mainstream press  if/when those stories eventually reach their headlines.  Although I don’t personally believe in media hierarchies in relation to quality and validity, the Serena Beakhurst case still shows that such hierarchies still exist in relation to power, value and representation.  No one was complaining that certain blogs hadn’t covered the story, the complaints were levelled at the mainstream press and their evident lack of interest.  It can only be a matter of time before the social/alternative media outputs get confident enough to ignore what the mainstream are or are not covering, and see themselves as the media itself, with inherent quality, validity, power, value and considered representation.  Hence the strap-line of this blog – Don’t hate the Media/Become the Media.

Anyway, enough of my preamble, here are my responses to Rachel.

What do you feel are the responsibilities of the press, if any, to report on missing person cases in the UK?

The word ‘responsibilities’ is an interesting one.  It brings to mind the title of James Curran and Jean Seaton’s book ‘Power without Responsibility’.  In the introduction, justifying the title, they say “that something which daily intrudes in our lives in ever more sophisticated ways needs to be, itself, the subject of continual public surveillance.  That the media interferes with us; therefore we have a right and duty to interfere with the media.”  (Curran, J. and Seaton, J. (2003), Power Without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain, Routledge, London, UK, page 4)

That is what I see going on at the moment with regards missing persons.  To answer your question directly, no I don’t think the national press have an automatic responsibility to report on missing person’s cases.  The cold fact is they are private commercial companies in the business of selling news to audiences – and selling audiences to advertisers.  Though I would say local news have more of a responsibility to report missing person stories, as they are directly serving close geographic communities, but the national press have no such obligation to their audiences.  The nationals are interested in what missing person stories can resonate further than the immediate geographic area? (How that is judged is highly debatable/controversial).  They have a responsibility to practice ethical methodologies, and to report fact not fiction, but regardless of what we the public think, the press do not have a responsibility to have to cover a certain type of story.  The agitation and accusation that is happening now however (though the agitation and accusation is far from new), is that the press should be reporting certain stories, especially now when certain stories become big in the blogosphere/twitter, but nowhere to be seen in the mainstream press.

Missing persons is a good case study for this.  When a person goes missing it is a deeply personal and emotional event.  We call friends, friends of friends, family, tenuous links, anybody who might have seen or know something, and of course the police when we know it’s serious.  Now in the internet age we get onto Facebook, Twitter, Blogging, etc.  In these cases social networking will invariably carry this news before any mainstream press may pick up the ‘story’, as the ‘event’ and momentum has happened from the ground up.   So in the case of Serena Beakhurst, it became a huge story online, but wasn’t at all picked up by the mainstreams.  So the online communities (myself included) eager to spread the word to get Serena found started to provide a “public surveillance” on the mainstream press and tried to “interfere” with the editorial decisions.   In the heat of an emotional frustration, accusations started to fly.  So a key question is what did the online agitators, strangers to Serena, (myself included), see in the Serena story, that wasn’t seen or appreciated by the mainstream editors?

What factors of a missing person case make it newsworthy? 

The simple answer is; a good story.  Some hypothetical questions journalists will be asking are; is it out of character?, is it suspicious?, are there any clues?, can the audience relate and sympathize, even if it ends tragically or happily?, what could be the motives of disappearance?, what visual material have we got access to show?, is it unique?, and other questions to judge whether it will be a worthwhile story. 

I’m not in a position to know, but I can only assume that Serena’s story did not answer enough of these questions favorably enough to satisfy the journalists.  This is where the journalists will also be listening to the signals coming from the police and friends they get access to.  Possibly Serena had run away before.  Possibly she had threatened running away in the days leading up to her disappearance, so it wasn’t a surprise.  The headline of Serena, a 14 year old girl goes missing over Christmas – made a startling ‘story’ to us strangers, and we hit the blogs, etc, and it exposed a chasm between the “news values” of the mainstream press and the citizen journalists.  Most citizen journalists (myself included) aren’t journalists at all, they are polemicists.  If I lived in London I MIGHT have gone to interview her mum and friends, but the fact is I didn’t and instead recycled news with my own opinion. 

It’s a harsh judge for an editor to declare what is or is not worthy of being “news”, especially when a missing 14 year old girl get subsequently classed as “not news worthy”, and that is what fuelled the anger and frustration from us online agitators.  I tried to use my blog post first and foremost to help find Serena, with some side digs and the press in the process.  Some other bloggers went on a full-out assault on the press about race bias, etc, with hardly any information about Serena herself, which I did not feel was the appropriate emphasis to be having whilst she was still missing. 

So the Serena case exposed some of the differences in what are considered news values between mainstream press and social media.  It would be the logical prediction that these cases will affect mainstream press more, as they are in a dire need to retain audiences – so they will invariably find new ways of doing what they do, and if that means reporting more missing persons stories (even if only online), then so be it.  It was interesting to note that when the mainstream press did pick up the Serena story, the main emphasis was on how the story grew via Twitter, Facebook, etc, not the fact that she was still missing.

The contrast with Milly Dowler’s disappearance in 2002 I guess is down to the answers to those hypothetical questions and the signals coming from police and friends.  I think it’s also down to the forcefulness of the parents and organizing press conferences, etc.  Serena’s mum in her writing after her daughter was found seemed happy with the police approach and not overly forceful or frustrated, but in the Dowler case the sense of urgency was from the very beginning.  Of course Serena’s mum was still highly worried, but probably the journalists and police respond to different types of urgency reactions in different ways.  The same goes with missing girls that go out with guys they have met on the internet.  The reason they are story classed as stories is due to the still novel nature of the circumstance – the internet as a new cause of crime.  Those stories contain timely modern morality tales of caution for the readers, and allows a bit of awareness raising without looking too preachy.  Many other girls who run away will also be with guys, but if it’s a local lad and not a stranger from the internet then it’s deemed as having less news value, and remains absent from the press.

Do you believe the news media is capable of influencing the public opinion on certain criminal matters?

Most definitely.  Even though public opinion should not matter in a court of law, it invariably will have some influence.  If a jury have down their job well they will return a verdict they ‘know’ is right, even if that flies in the face of public opinion.  Of course this is an idealistic position, as I know there have been tragedies of miscarriages of justice in court that have been influenced the media, public opinion, politics, racism, sexism, etc.  It’s interesting with the Joanna Yeates case how Chris Jefferies the first suspect was absolutely hounded by the press with all his private life exposed, but since this new guy has been charged, it’s all gone very quiet.  I may be naive, but it almost feels like they realized they went too far.  If Jefferies was guilty, it could have been near impossible for him to have had a fair trial.  “Power without Responsibility.”

Does the media select only certain missing persons cases for publication and, if so, why?

Good vs weaker stories, (in the minds of news editors).

Do you believe that by only selecting certain missing person cases to represent, the news media are simply giving the public what they want?

Not really.  I think audiences of news media take what they are given.  It is only the well referenced and media literate amongst the audiences that agitate and say what they are not being told.  Otherwise, people don’t really know what they are not being told.  The majority of audiences don’t question the news.  They may occasionally ask, “Why is that on the news?” (e.g. Take That releasing a new single).  But it is a small minority that will ask, “why was that not on the news?”  That’s the interesting tension now between the mainstream press and social media, bloggers etc. – the online documenters are picking up things the mainstream press don’t know about yet.  If they do get ‘picked up’, that’s fine, if they don’t, there can be claims of a conspiracy of silence.  It’s not really that simple.

Why do you believe there was such widespread media interest in the Joanna Yeates case but a lack of interest in the Serena Beakhurst case?

Professor David Wilson, author of ‘Looking for Laura: Public Criminology and Hot News’, (which you’ll find interesting), was interviewed on the Jeremy Vine Show yesterday on BBC Radio 2 (Mon 18th April) about these issues.  He said at the same time as the Stephen Lawrence murder a white boy was murdered by an Asian boy, but that didn’t hit any of the headlines or cause any of the ramifications of the public eye.  This to me shows how there’s not a news media rulebook that is cast in stone. 

I said at the time Serena was found that I believed had she been a white girl the mainstream press would have picked it up.  Of course I can’t prove that.  With time passing and reading what her mum had to say, I still believe race played a part, but I think the behind the scenes factors (those hypothetical questions) are also significant.  I now believe it would never have been a front page big news story, but still believe that it would have at least got a mention in more press had she been a white 14 year old from a conventional family, but saying that I have also to recognise that the answers to those hypothetical questions would change, so it would be unfair to compare them as like for like.  And this is the problem with the notion of ‘news values’ – as when all said and done a 14 year old girl was missing – regardless of socioeconomic background, class, race, etc.  But those backgrounds builds the story, and that’s where/when mere facts are not enough for the judgment of news values.  Yes a 14 year old girl is missing, but what type of 14 year old girl?

Joanna Yeates was older, steady job, steady relationship, keys left in flat, missing pizza, it had mystery all over it from the start.  News stories, like drama, needs tension to hook the audience.  It was weighed up with Serena and the 14 year old lost out.  At Christmas there will only be so many missing persons stories the press are going to want to deal with, so the editors took the gamble, and in a depressing gruesome macabre way it paid off.  It obviously sounds cold to discuss such tragic events in this detached commercial way, but that is the commodity that is being dealt with in this business of news journalism.  The mainstream press being silent on the Serena story was not racist, but it did expose a bias – which was a bias of what makes a good story.  I’m sure Serena would have provided a good story, but one seemingly not good enough for the news demographic for audience/readers to care.  The online agitators rightly questioned that logic of judgement. Thankfully it also had a happy ending.  It is depressing to think that only a tragic ending to the Serena story would have vindicated that questioning of the news values status quo.  That is one battle I am so glad to have lost.        

Dr Shawn Sobers – University of the West of England
20th April 2011

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6 thoughts on “Missing persons reportage in the traditional press and social media outlets

  1. Whew i feel worn out after reading that. i remember when u posted it on FB that Serena had gone missing and i had similar questions and uneasy thoughts and feelings. i’m really glad i now know you’re views on the media side of it all!

    (via Facebook)

  2. @ AL – Ha ha. Cheers mate. Hope all well with you and the family.

    @ KM – I always wanted to revisit the Serena story as it did raise a lot of questions, so being contacted by that student gave me a perfect excuse to spend some time with it. Glad you found it of interest, thanks for reading it.

    (via Facebook)

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