The Makings of a High-Profile Case: How Media Bias Influences Forensic Investigations in Missing Person Cases

Source: Jennifer Fertel, BA, Duquesne University; Charlene Shunick, MS, Delgado Community College; Lyndsie Ferrara, PhD, Duquesne University; Pamela Marshall, PhD, Duquesne University
Justice Talks


The prevalence of missing person cases continues to captivate the media and true crime genre consumers. With biases dictating the treatment of missing persons and the representation of these groups of people, efforts toward equality continue to be at the forefront. While both the media and the public have made efforts to advocate for these standards of fairness, there still seem to be discrepancies based on who is asked. The factors that go into a missing person case being plastered across the media can be broken down into the location of the media source and the background of the missing person, among many others. Understanding the implications of this differential media attention is crucial in evaluating how it impacts the work of forensic investigators. This specific research project aims to better the processes conducted by both media representatives and forensic investigators in the hope that justice will continue to be served for those underrepresented groups.

To better understand these implications, this research is broken down into two separate parts. The first section is a case comparison study, in which two sets of cases are collected and contrasted. This primary objective is going into the specifics of cases, timelines, and backgrounds of the missing person, in addition to the attention received in the media. In most instances, the case comparison will involve a missing White woman, as seen heavily in the media, to that of a missing person within one of the underrepresented groups. This approach stems from the coined term "missing White woman syndrome," in which the media tends to hyper-fixate on missing White women in society. Overall, the results of the case are contrasted to see if the media has implications on the work forensic investigators conduct. For the second set of data collection, interviews are conducted with forensic investigators and media representatives. Their personal perspectives on these issues ideally reinforce the significance of addressing the lack of equality as emphasized in the case comparison study.

During this research process, and the subsequent collection of information, the primary factor as determined thus far is the missing person's support system. Loved ones play a vital role in continually pushing for attention, with pleas to the community. Those who lack a support system or aren't willing to talk to the media have been shown to make it more difficult for reporters to give that element needed in a news report. This applies to the pressure put on investigators to continue to work on solving the case and providing tips.

In addition, as with most issues within society, financial resources hold an influential aspect within a missing person case. While financial stability does not directly influence the work of the investigators, it does aid in access to resources, and the lack of staffing to work on these cases doesn't assist in generating community engagement. These factors can impact if there is a reward posted, flights for travel, specialized search and recovery efforts, and continual pushes to bring home this person. These factors can impact the success of a missing person investigation, which prompts us as a society to consider how we may improve this process for someone lacking familial and financial support. 


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