Sunday, July 19, 2009

Writing What You Know: Missing People

Today, our guest blogger is Julie Kramer, a freelance network news producer. Her debut thriller, STALKING SUSAN, won the RT Reviewers Choice Award for Best First Mystery, the Minnesota Book Award for genre fiction, and was a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. It's also been nominated for Best First Novel in both the Anthony and Barry Awards.

Her second book, MISSING MARK, is available now from Doubleday.

by Julie Kramer

kramer-julie If authors are going to take readers inside a fictional version of their own world, it helps if that world holds some natural intrigue to outsiders.

That's where I lucked out, working as a career producer in the increasingly desperate world of TV news. By coming clean about some of my profession's flaws, my debut, STALKING SUSAN, (recently out in paperback) takes a little of the mystery out of the media. And my readers seem to appreciate the insider knowledge on how news decisions are made to how hidden cameras work.

Of course, some of my news colleagues wish I hadn't been quite so candid. They ask: Did you have to tell them all that stuff about ratings? Did you have to tell them "If it bleeds it leads?"

In my sequel, MISSING MARK, my TV reporter heroine answers a want ad reading "Wedding Dress For Sale: Never Worn" and is drawn into a dangerous missing person case during sweeps month.

susan1bAs a journalist, I've covered numerous missing people and I never know how the cases are going to turn out. Some victims, heartbreakingly, end up dead (Dru Sjodin - North Dakota). Others, miraculously, turn up alive. (Shawn Hornbeck - Missouri) Some, hauntingly, are never found. (Jodi Huseintruit -Iowa) Some are abducted. (Jacob Wetterling - Minnesota) Others stage their own abduction. (Audrey Seiler - Wisconsin) I used MISSING MARK as an opportunity to show readers how newsrooms decide which missing people get publicity and which don't. It can be a provocative discussion.

When a child disappears, the media goes into action. And those actions, from broadcasting Amber Alerts to interviewing sobbing parents, are fairly predictable. Children should never be missing, so missing children are news.

It's when adults go missing that the situation gets tricky because grownups are allowed to leave without sharing their plans with friends and family. And hey, often enough they do show up just days later. Back from Vegas. Sheepish. So without signs of foul play, there's some controversy in how long the police wait to investigate a missing adult. Often journalists take their cues from law enforcement. If the cops don't appear to be taking a case seriously, the media might not either. Some states, such as Minnesota have recently passed legislation like "Brandon's Law," requiring police to more aggressively investigative missing adults deemed to be "endangered."

Whether a missing person gets news coverage can depend on how slow the news day is, or if a holiday is approaching and other news events come to a standstill. I don't think it's any coincidence that lots of missing people who became household names disappeared near holidays. Remember Lacy Peterson and Christmas?

How accessible the victim's family is for interviews and photographs can also make a difference in publicity. That's content. And newsrooms seek content. Without a family pushing the police to search and the media to broadcast descriptions, the missing tend to stay missing. And until someone reports them gone, the missing aren't even considered missing. That's why serial killers who target prostitutes or the homeless tend to stay under the radar longer.

One of the most controversial aspects of missing people and the media is why attractive, white women seem to get the most national media attention. There's no good answer for that. I know for a fact, news managers don't consciously decide coverage based on the victim's appearance. But if you look at the faces of the missing who have gone viral, that seems to be a common denominator.

stalking-susan Certainly it's more understandable that missing women get more coverage than missing men because, historically, missing women are more likely to be in jeopardy. But as for appearance, it might be one of those chicken vs. the egg quandaries. Are attractive victims more likely to get publicity because that's who viewers watch and that's who draws ratings? Is the media merely giving the public what it wants? Or is the media deciding what the public wants? As a journalist and as a viewer, I don't know the answer to that debate. But I know newsrooms are troubled by it.

When I started writing what eventually was titled MISSING MARK, I had in my mind that the bride was the missing character. But after my neighbor, a West Point cadet home on leave, went missing, I decided to make my victim a man to discuss some of the challenges missing men face.

So instead of Here Comes The Bride, my story became There Goes The Groom.

A MISSING MARK case in the headlines recently involves South Carolina governor Mark Sandford going AWOL to visit his Argentina mistress. If you dropped that kind of plot in a novel, critics might call it improbable. But that's just one example of truth being stranger than fiction.

What do you think about how the media covers missing people? What do you think about how they're portrayed in fiction?

8 comments:

  1. I agree the media coverage for missing adults is slanted toward coverage of pregnant white women and attractive women.

    I don't see that bias as much for missing children, I don't think. At least, I hope the coverage for missing kids isn't biased.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  2. Thanks for being our guest today, Julie. And it was great to see you at ThrillerFest. It’s unfortunate that there are always going to be the Mark Sandfords of the world whose selfish and misguided behavior just might cause the injury or death of a real missing person because the public and press have lowered their guard. How often have we seen a sobbing mother in front of the cameras who we later find murdered her “missing” child after thousands have volunteered to form search parties? Then the real event happens and our enthusiasm is dulled from being duped in the past. I’m glad to see that you’re able to use your media experience to add a sharp edge of reality to your thrillers. Thanks again for stopping by.

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  3. Thanks for your comments, Elizabeth and Joe...I think one of the reasons news audiences are so interested in missing person cases is you never know what the answer will be.
    If the headline is about a murder, you know the person is dead and will stay dead. With missing people...anything can and does happen. And as you mention, how many cases have a parent sobbing and searching for a child they've killed. No wonder it's good fodder for fiction.

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  4. We are getting the news we want, not the news we need to see. I think Walter Cronkite said that. I thinkthe media is helping destroy this country, minute by minute... For ratings they are selling us down the river daily--stupiding their viewers until Bridezilla is going to be Emmy worthy soon.

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  5. I so love the topic on missing person cases. It's like being on the CSI set, trying to figure things out even without the presence of solid clues. I'm actually doing custom term papers on missing people also, trying o play the investigator.

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  6. Hi Julie, welcome to TKZ. I definitely think the media wants to cover missing persons cases where viewers will be 'gripped' and all emotional strings are pulled. Invariably this means that there's bias...and all too often we don't hear about the 'ordinary cases' not involving attractive white pregnant ladies...Sad but true.

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  7. I agree there is a bias in the media for the young, the sexy and the white. While not missing persons, I lived in L.A. for 8 years and noticed a huge discrepancy in cover of crimes committed in black or Hispanic areas as opposed to more upscale white ones. It's not pretty, but it is there. But I have to wonder if the media feeds it or their audience is only interested in those subjects?

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  8. I worked in the PIO and Crime Stoppers units in Suffolk County for 16 years, and handled many missing persons cases over the years. In 1992, I was one of the only officers working in PIO between Christmas and New Years (the more senior officers were on vacation) when a 10 year old girl, Katie Beers, went missing. No one could have guessed that 16 days later she'd be found ALIVE in an underground bunker belonging to the very man (a family friend) who reported her missing. We received worldwide media attention. A rare happy ending to a MP case!
    In Crime Stoppers, every year I would profile a particular MP case of a young man on the anniversary of his disappearance. Still no answers for his heartbroken mother.
    Thanks for a wonderful post, Julie. Unlike some cops, I enjoyed working with the media. Some came and went, but many assignment editors and reporters I worked with for 16 years. I also handled the media during the tragedy of Flight 800, an experience I will never forget.
    Best wishes with MISSING MARK. It sounds intriguing!

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