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Missing people: The media looks for the development of a story


Dr Karen Shalev-Greene, director of the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons, is currently studying the ways different cases are treated in the media.

There appears to be an ‘ideal victim’ in the sense that the media seem to prefer to present people who are vulnerable, but also presentable. So people who are pretty, people who are genuine victims for no reason other than life was unfair. People who have a history of criminal behaviour or people who have a history of drug abuse or homelessness are not as attractive as a middle class family who just go about their daily business and something bad happens to them. So the people who tick all the boxes are the ones that end up being reported in the media the most. If you think about missing children for example, the vast majority of high profile cases in the last year and a half have been white girls, also they have been victims of crime, like Tia Sharp for example. You have got interesting cases but normally there has been some element of criminal activity that has led to their disappearance, but it started off as a missing person investigation.

I think one of the things the media looks for is the development of a story so if you just start off with someone who is missing that’s fine but if you can then develop it into a criminal investigation of some sort then it can run for a longer period of time and will have different angles as it develops.

My research started a couple of months ago, and will be based on at least ten months of media coverage between 2012 and 2013. I hope to start analysing the data during the summer and aim to get it published in an academic paper next year [2014].

I want to understand the patterns of media bias in reporting cases of missing people in Britain.  I think this will be the first research of its type to have been done in the UK.

I think in a sense the media creates the bias because people are not exposed to the variety of cases, so are led by the reporting. I think if you talk to the general public about missing children for example, they tend to think they are only children that have been abducted or have come to harm and in that sense the media is responsible. But the reality is that it is only a small minority that is abducted by strangers or is victim to extreme violent crime.”