The "Missing" Missing: How the "Ideal Victim" is Framed in Media Coverage of Missing Persons
Mescher, Juliane C.
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Not all missing people are created equal in the United States, especially when it comes to media coverage. Through the selection of specific cases and the emphasis of certain personal attributes, the media frames the issue of missing persons. The media tells us who goes missing in the United States, and ultimately who is worth looking for. Nils Christie (1986) coined the term “ideal victim” suggesting that a person is most likely legitimized as a crime victim if they are female, very young, or very old. The ideal victim is innocent, defenseless, blameless, and deserving of sympathy. Previous research has neglected to apply the concept of the ideal victim to missing persons cases and it has ignored the experiences of the families of the missing. This research is the first of its kind in that it systematically analyzes how the media frames missing persons cases while also giving a voice to the family members left behind. The analysis of 178 television newsmagazine episodes in Study 1 finds that the media is framing missing persons as a White and female issue. The media is also consistently framing the media-worthy missing person in very specific ways: (1) She is attractive; (2) She is a good person who is missed; (3) She is a victim; and (4) She has secrets. Fourteen family members of missing persons were interviewed in Study 2 and their sentiments echo the findings from Study 1. Their experiences with the media have convinced them that the media frames the ideal missing person as white, female, beautiful, relatable, defenseless and an all-around good person deserving of our attention. The families all agree that getting media coverage for a missing person is a responsibility that falls most heavily on the family members. The only media attention most cases are getting is the media coverage the families are creating themselves. The families have important advice to give to other families of missing persons. They offer specific suggestions on how to generate and keep media interest in a case, how to cope emotionally with media-related stressors, and where to find help when needed