How Race, Class, Status of Missing Persons Influence News Coverage


Missing Indiana University student Lauren Spierer has had lots of news media attention, but the vast majority of missing persons will be forgotten, if they ever get mentioned at all, says the Indianapolis Star. Nearly 700,000 people were reported missing in 2010, but only a small fraction were gone for more than a few days. Those who are missing must compete for finite media coverage, the attention of overworked cops, and fickle public tastes. The loved ones who want to find them often discover that what makes headlines can depend on race, class, and social status. “Some of these families just don’t know the steps, and they face roadblocks when they try to get a response from the media,” said Gaétane Borders, president of Peas in Their Pods, a group that tracks missing black children and adults.

The media glare on Spierer’s affluent parents is the exception, not the rule. Most endure the void privately, searching on their own or passing along to detectives any tiny nugget of newly gleaned information that might help end the ordeal. With six detectives and three supervisors, the Indianapolis police Missing Persons Unit is typical of many larger departments. In addition to missing persons, the unit receives 3,200 runaway reports a year, 90 noncustodial abandonment cases and five to eight kidnappings. The unit handles about 800 reports a year, but only about 45 are open, credible cases, said Capt. Lorenzo Lewis. Neatrice Billingsly, whose son Jason Thomas Ellis went missing in Indianapolis in 2006 at the age of 20, said race and class have a lot to do with media coverage. “Unfortunately, people stigmatize each other according to where you are from, what you are and your nationality,” said Billingsly, an African-American who lives in Gary. “It’s just another black child missing a lot of the time.”

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