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New Online Tool Tells How The Media Value Missing Person Cases

If you went missing, how much press would you be “worth”? The Columbia Journalism Review unveiled a tool on Thursday that calculates the number of stories your disappearance would net, based on demographics. It sounds morbid but the exercise is designed to call attention to “missing white women syndrome,” the tendency of news organizations to pay 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. There’s been little indication that coverage decisions have evolved, reports the Associated Press. “It’s like a bolt that has been rusted in place,” said Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia Journalism School. The media firestorm around the disappearance and death of Gabby Petito last year renewed scrutiny of the practice, with Petito’s own family imploring media to give all missing people the same attention.

Researchers at CJR and the ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day/New York examined 3,600 stories about missing persons last year by U.S.-based news organizations, cross-referencing them with age, gender and race details from a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Justice. The data were used to generate a rough estimate of how much public attention a person would get based on who they are, said Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor in chief and publisher. The site asks users to enter their age, gender, location and ethnicity. As the site goes through each step, the user is told that the disappearance of older people and men are less likely to make the news. The tool distinguishes between stories in the local and national press, so people in larger cities with more news outlets have a “higher chance of being reported on than people in rural areas.” White people are the most likely to get covered, while Black and Hispanic people have the lowest chance of coverage. About 38 people people who go missing in the U.S. are Black, more than double the percentage of Black people in the general population, the Black and Missing Foundation says. Black people accounted for 22 percent of missing people in the data examined by CJR, and just 13 percent of news stories.


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