New calculator tackles inequality in missing person stories

NEW YORK (AP) — If you disappeared, how much press would you “be worth”? The Columbia Journalism Review on Thursday unveiled a tool that calculates how many stories your disappearance would earn, based on demographics.

It sounds morbid, but the exercise is designed to draw attention to “missing white women syndrome,” the tendency of news organizations to pay relatively little attention to missing people who don’t fit that category.

The late journalist Gwen Ifill is credited with coining the term two decades ago. Yet, in the meantime, there is no indication that hedging decisions have changed.

“It’s like a bolt that’s been rusted into place,” said Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia Journalism School.

The media storm surrounding Gabby Petito’s disappearance and death last year has renewed scrutiny of the practice, with Petito’s own family pleading with the media to give all missing persons equal attention.

Researchers from CJR and the advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day/New York examined 3,600 missing person stories written by US-based news agencies last year, cross-referencing them with details on age, gender and race from a database maintained by the US Department. of Justice.

The data was used to generate a rough estimate of how much public attention a person would get based on who they are, said CJR editor and publisher Kyle Pope. The adamantly named site asks users to enter their age, gender, location, and ethnicity.

As the site progresses, the user is informed that the disappearances of elderly people and men are less likely to make the news. The tool distinguishes between local and national news stories, so people in big cities – where there is more media – are “more likely to be reported than people in rural areas”. Whites are the most likely to be covered, while Blacks and Hispanics have the lowest chance of being covered.

About 38% of people missing in the United States are black, more than double the percentage of black people in the general population, according to the Black and Missing Foundation.

Black people made up 22% of missing people in the data reviewed by CJR, and just 13% of the news stories. White people, who accounted for 47% of missing person cases, featured in 70% of stories.

According to the calculator, the disappearance of a 22-year-old white woman in New York would generate 67 stories. If she were three years older, that number would drop to 19. And a 25-year-old black woman missing from New York would be eight. A 50-year-old black man in the same city would score six.

The results page also identifies the outlets most and least likely to cover up the user’s hypothetical disappearance and calculates the percentage of Americans who would hear from you. More than 92% of Americans have heard of a missing 22-year-old white woman from Nevada, according to the tool.

Why is this important? “When a missing person case is seen by more people, their chances of being found increase,” the site says.

There hasn’t been comparable data since when “missing white person syndrome” was first hinted at about two decades ago.

“We need to shine a spotlight on how the media works and how we devalue – inadvertently or not – the lives of the people we are meant to cover,” Cobb said.

Implicit biases are partly to blame, he said, along with a lack of diversity among journalists in decision-making roles and hard-to-break habits.

“There is clearly an imbalance,” said Angeline Hartmann, spokeswoman for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “What has to happen is that the playing field has to be leveled.”

But Hartmann said it’s not just demographics that play into determining which stories get covered. The media also gravitates to stories where there are plenty of photos and videos available of the victim – as in Petito’s case – and a family member willing to be a spokesperson on camera. These things make the job of journalists easier.

Likewise, authorities need to look closely at how situations are characterised, Hartmann said. Sometimes, she says, people are overly simplistically labeled as runaways and therefore not included in stories of missing children.

CJR has made similar efforts to draw attention to misinformation and coverage of climate control and gun issues.

Pope said he hoped their new online tool would draw attention on social media, especially among news consumers who could then lobby their local news outlets to keep the issue on the table. spirit. Each results page ends with the photos and names of people who are currently missing and “have not received any media coverage”, as well as an encouragement to contact the authorities for any information.

“That’s one of the reasons CJR exists, because we have the attention of the news industry and we need to use that to report issues,” Pope said. “I don’t think any other type of serious editorial can move the needle.”

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