*Note* story updated 5/1/11 after teenager was found safe and well, therefore name removed.
Joanna Yeates and a teenager, two young people who went missing in December, have received very different amounts of media coverage. Naturally these are stories which are extremely distressing for the friends and relatives of those involved and it's important to bear that in mind when thinking about attempting any kind of comparison, or even whether a comparison is a fair thing to make.
The national press doesn't seem very interested in the disappearance of the teenager - the story hasn't been widely covered other than by news outlets such as the local press near to her home, the Voice and on social media. The story is now receiving some attention because of the social media connection, and the celebrities who have been involved with tweeting details in hope of the disappearance reaching a wider audience. For example, this coverage by the Daily Mail seems as much about the tweeting of the story by people such as Stephen Fry and Rio Ferdinand as it is about the teenager being missing. Nonetheless, the news has made the mainstream and it's laudable of the Mail to pick it up; it also demonstrates how social media stories can drift into a wider view.
With the Jo Yeates case, there was also a small amount of local coverage in the early stages, until police held a press conference on December 22 - after which time the story appeared in all the major national papers, on television, radio and elsewhere. Why did the story get so big? There are a number of reasons, including it being a slow news period with newsdesks scratching around for stories when this tale fell into their laps; the police press conference including the visibly distraught relatives; the presence of CCTV pictures which meant it could be covered on TV news without just still photos; the unusual nature of the disappearance, with the person involved having been seen buying a pizza which then disappeared; and the mystery of the whole affair; this was an atypical disappearance in that the person who went missing was a professional in their 20s who had no history of mental health issues; there is the possibility that police suspected foul play at the time; also, the police needed assistance with the inquiry and therefore turned to the public for help. There is also the fact that the missing person was a woman, young, blonde and attractive. At another time, it may have been different; at another time, it may have been not as prominently covered.
It's difficult, then, to compare that disappearance with the disappearance of the teenager. Without any undue speculation, it is worth noting that many teenagers do go missing and their disappearances often attract no more coverage than stories in the local press, and these teenagers are often located soon after. Aside from this teenager, at least three other young people went missing in December - and were subsequently found safe and well. Quite rightly in my view, when missing youngsters are found, the local papers who covered the stories often remove them from their websites so they're not there forever.
All that said, there is more than a faint suspicion that there may be other reasons why the disappearance of someone like Jo Yeates might attract more coverage. Would the Jo Yeates case be considered such a strong story if she were not white, not a professional, not - for want of a better term - middle-class? I don't know and I am not sure. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am not enamoured with the tabloid press, and they have certainly produced some deeply unpleasant stories with regard to the treatment of Chris Jefferies - but I am not sure I can be certain they have been discriminatory in their comparatively quiet coverage of the teenager's disappearance. There may be many other reasons - the type of disappearance, the steering from police with suspicion of abduction or foul play, the availability of footage and photographs adding to the mystery of the disappearance, the story having broken at a time when so little was going on and thereby attracting more attention in the public's imagination, and so on. I'm not ruling out a discriminatory attitude; I'm just saying I am not sure we can conclude that is what is going on.
Missing people is one of those quietly unseen stories that causes untold sadness and pain to families across the country, whether those who go missing are found again or not - it's a story that doesn't get widespread national coverage because, perhaps, it isn't seen as a national issue, more a localised one. It is probably not straightforward to know what's best to do in every circumstance, as each individual is different, may respond differently to publicity, and so on. However, as the response to the teenager's case shows, people do engage with the story of a missing person - regardless of ethnicity - and they are interested in the outcome, even if they do not live nearby and possibly cannot help with sightings or information. All we can hope is that, where appropriate, all missing person cases get the coverage they deserve, and that the coverage might help them come home safely.