Missing Persons and the Media

Another little girl lost: Samantha Runnion. Her life cut short at age five, she joins a mournful pantheon of other females missing or murdered in still-mysterious ways — Jonbenet Ramsey, Chandra Levy, Danielle Van Dam, Elizabeth Smart.

Some critics decry the media attention paid to these sad sagas; they note, for example, the case of Alexis Patterson, a seven-year-old black girl, missing in Milwaukee since May 3, whose vanishing has received little coverage.

One of my colleagues on the News Watch program labeled this disparity "racist." But the Patterson case, in which the girl disappeared from school, is not as spectacular as cases in which an intruder bursts into a home and carries away the child, as happened in the Van Dam, Smart, and Runnion situations. Moreover, as The Milwaukee Sentinel pointed out, the Patterson family wasn’t as cooperative and "media friendly" as some of the other families.

Which is a shame, because the quantity and quality of media coverage makes a difference. The TV show America’s Most Wanted, created by John Walsh, who lost his own child in a 1981 abduction, has emerged as a powerful tool for law enforcement, facilitating 716 arrests since1988. And the intensive media coverage of the Runnion case has encouraged people to think about other aspects of crime prevention, such as profiling. The Los Angeles Times, no bastion of conservative thought, was moved by the Runnion case to ask, in a July 18 editorial, "Cannot this nation, able to detect a warm engine from space or an invisible planet from Earth, devise some way to profile such a predator before a child's life is lost?"

That’s a good question. And another good question is why profiling shouldn’t be extended to other crimes as well, notably terrorism. If a deeper understanding of crime prevention emerges, then Samantha’s tragic death will not have been in vain, and media coverage will have served a higher purpose.