• Mollie Tibbetts gets far more coverage than other missing persons. Is media bias to blame?

    By: USA Today

    Updated:

    DES MOINES, Iowa — Iesha Husted last saw her brother in January in Centerville, Iowa.

    Sebastian Husted, 19, has been missing ever since.

    “Nobody has written about it,” she said.

    That’s in sharp contrast to the case of a 20-year-old University of Iowa student, Mollie Tibbetts, who was listed July 18 as missing from Brooklyn, Iowa.

    Her unsolved case has received considerable state and national media attention from the Des Moines Register; local television stations; and national media outlets, including ABC, CNN and Fox News.

    Iesha Husted believes she knows the reason why.

    “I think it is because our family is poor. We don’t have the funds to get his face out there,” said Husted, 25. “We don’t have a tight-knit community to rally around. A lot of people think he was an 18-year-old boy running away from his problems.”

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    Investigators from the Centerville Police Department and Mercer County Sheriff’s Department did not return messages seeking comment on the case.

    Iowans showed alarm on social media when a list of missing people in Iowa was widely shared after Tibbetts' disappearance. Nearly 400 people are on the list, and some wondered why few others had the same name recognition.

    The concern so great that public safety officials clarified in a news release that the numbers of those missing were steady and most were runaways.

    But the uneven amount of attention that news media and the public pay to missing persons is not uncommon.

    “Victims that are white, young and female are more likely to be covered, especially on the national level. The victim is seen as more innocent,” said Michelle Jeanis, assistant professor in the criminal justice department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

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    Her 2016 study, Newsworthiness of Missing Person Cases, mirrored findings from other researchers that show selection bias in coverage, but she said it could not conclude whether the cause was a bias of race, age, gender or class in a sampling of 50 cases in Louisiana.

    “Are the news outlets telling viewers what they want, or are the viewers telling the news media what they want?” Jeanis asked. “Who is biased? It’s hard to know.

    “But there is something about the young coed story that is incredibly enticing.”

    Unearthing the bias is important because law enforcement officials encourage news media to raise awareness to gather more tips and “get more eyes on their photos to bring them home safe — though that hasn’t been proven,” Jeanis said. State officials expressed that sentiment Tuesday about Tibbetts at a news conference in Montezuma, Iowa, that reporters from national media outlets attended.

    Jeanis' latest unpublished study on social-media shares and likes on posts about missing persons showed similar bias among the public.

    “Social media is seen as the great equalizer,” yet missing young and white victims get more likes and shares, she said.

    At least one person wanted the case of Sebastian Husted to be known among her Facebook followers.

    Riley Drake, a doctoral student in social and cultural studies in education at Iowa State University, wondered if lack of coverage had anything to do with Sebastian Husted’s race or class. She is also from Centerville but doesn’t know him.

    “In our community, we celebrate baseball tournaments. We just won the state tournament. It was exciting to see the Facebook posts of everyone celebrating and being supportive,” she said in an interview. “But where is the support and compassion for a young man that is missing?”

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    Drake and others say they want to be clear: They applaud the attention and focus on Tibbetts and hope the best for her and her family. But what about the rest?

    Iesha Husted said her brother had his 19th birthday and a baby since Jan. 22, 2018, when she realized he was missing. The day before, her brother was doing his laundry and she took him to the store for groceries.

    The man whom family and friends called Ty had been working for a hog confinement facility in Mercer County, Missouri, just across the state line, and carpooled with another man to the job he had been working at for a short time, she said.

    At first, Iesha Husted didn’t wonder why her brother didn’t respond to her text messages.

    “He was 18,” she said.

    Soon, another sibling said his boss was wondering where he was, and the siblings filed a report. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Ty Husted has been listed as missing ever since.

    “Ty has been in a little trouble but nothing serious,” Iesha Husted said. Iowa court records show no violations.

    He was having a baby with a woman he wasn’t married to, so law enforcement and community members considered him a “punk kid running away,” she said.

    “But it might have something to do with the fact he is biracial and he is male. I feel like girls get more attention, period,” Iesha Husted said.

    His disappearance generated a local radio and TV spots, including a photograph and plea for tips that aired on KTVO-TV in Kirksville, Missouri, and five paragraphs on the station’s website, which said that Ty Husted last was seen at the large-scale hog operation in Mercer County.

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    “I think all these cases should be covered — not equally, I realize that’s not possible. But they should be addressed better than just putting his picture on TV,” Iesha Husted said.

    The numbers of missing can be alarming but knowing the facts of each case can provide clarity on why certain cases get attention, public safety officials said.

    A 16-year-old girl from Indianola, Iowa, was reported missing five days after Tibbetts, but her case received no attention. Police said that's for good reason.

    “It’s a runaway child, and this person has a history of it,” said Capt. Brian Sher of the Indianola Police Department. “Social media has gone crazy on this: 'Everyone is disappearing off the face of the earth!' 

    "Don’t get me wrong: We take all cases seriously," he said. "But this was a voluntary issue.”

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    Of the 397 missing persons on Iowa's list as of July 30, 228 were listed as “juveniles,” law-enforcement code for “runaways,” said Medina Rahmanovic of the Iowa Missing Person Information Clearinghouse.

    Many come back within 24 hours, and parents don’t always report their return to law enforcement, so the name stays on the list.

    Of the 397, 26 are listed as “involuntary disappearances,” dating back to 1979. Ty Husted is on this involuntary list of people whom investigators think might be abducted or kidnapped.

    Another 51 are on the “endangered” list, “circumstances indicating that his/her physical safety is in danger.” That list includes Jake Wilson, a child with mild autism from La Porte City who was reported missing April 7.

    Tibbetts is listed as “other adult missing.”

    “If a parent reports that they truly believe it is an abduction, we would be on it,” Rahmanovic said.

    John Shine has a unique vantage point: He worked in the media for decades and was the general manager of KIMT-TV, Mason City, Iowa, and boss of Jodi Huisentruit, who was reported missing June 26, 1995. She never has been found, and her case still gets considerable media attention.

    “It became international because of who she was, a well-known anchor who was well liked. She was attractive, white and well known,” said Shine, who is retired and lives in Urbandale, Iowa.

    “I had calls from Europe and all over the world (from media)." he said. "Was that overkill? Probably, yeah.”

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    But in his career in the media he said he didn’t think he saw bias. He covered cases involving black victims in Missouri while at a radio station and missing senior citizens with dementia while at a TV station in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

    Others aren’t so sure. Jodi Ewing, who founded Iowa Cold Cases website, said she spends hours each day poring through media reports of cases of unsolved murders and missing persons.

    “I’ve seen it time and again: Some cases get more attention, the prettier the better, the blond and blue eyed and those going to college from well-to-do families,” she said. “It’s almost like the public thinks they are more worthy because they come from better backgrounds.”

    Yet Ewing admits she is guilty of that bias herself. She placed Tibbetts’ photograph on her website, even though it's not a cold case, because she knew people would be interested.

    Those who study and educate the media also say coverage is biased.

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    “I was a police reporter once, so I know: We tend to be more compassionate and more empathetic to people that look like us,” said Kelly McBride, a senior vice president at the Poynter Institute. The nonprofit's mission is, in part, to teach ethics to journalists.

    The first layer of bias may come from law enforcement, who give police reporters cues on what may be a case they need to follow with more urgency. she said.

    But the second layer lies in the newsroom and goes beyond race and class.

    “Just calling someone a female student, there is a whole lot of empathy that goes into that. We don’t put that into different walks of life,” she said.

    If the story goes national, the “damsel in distress” narrative gets more play.

    “There is an amazing amount of bias that goes into the news,” McBride said. “The problem is we don’t recognize our own bias. The best way to counter that is a diverse staff and diverse leadership.”

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    An emphasis in media organizations on gathering more online “clicks” to stories has not made selection bias worse, she said.

    “As a former police reporter, we loved the missing white girl story, and that was before metrics,” McBride said.

    Follow Mike Kilen on Twitter: @mikekilen

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