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Victimization & Drama in News

Victimization and Drama in News Coverage of Kidnapped Victims

Paper submitted for presentation consideration at the News Division,


Broadcast Education Assoication, Las Vegas, April 9-13, 2011

Victimization & Drama in News

Abstract
The so-called Missing White Women Syndrome in the media was largely a popular
belief that has not been systematically investigated. This study used victimization
theories in narratives to guide an investigation into coverage of the AMBER Alert
victims. Results indicated that the story behind the syndrome was multilayered. Findings
also helped inform discussions on its possible conceptualization.

Key words: Damsel in Distress; AMBER Alert; Narratives; Victimization; News


Sensationalism.

Victimization & Drama in News

Victimization and Drama in News Coverage of Kidnapped Victims


When a kidnapping occurs, it evokes feelings of revulsion, fear, indignation,
incredulity and discomfiture - few felonies stir up such a gamut of emotions, or command
our attention as completely as the abduction of a child for perverse ends. Televisual and
print media are saturated with stories of such crimes. However, as Clark (2008)
poignantly opines: Kidnapping sells, but not every kidnapping is equal." Sensational,
emotionally laden accounts of victimization in journalism have been demonstrated to
increase emotional response (Aust & Zillmann, 1996). Stories that are laden with
sensationalism, graphic detail, and dramatic content appear prominently. This
perceptible emphasis suggests that such news items captivate the attention of viewers and
offer strategic benefits in the competition for audiences among media outlets
Consequently, the skeptical assertion that mass media organizations are predisposed
towards selective coverage of sensational and salacious stories has been advanced by
scholarly and popular critics (Clark, 2008).
A frequent criticism has been directed toward the perception of asymmetry in
media coverage of kidnapping victims based upon their race, sex, and class. The most
prominent description of this phenomenon has been dubbed the Missing White Woman
Syndrome in popular culture. Abductions involving young, attractive white females of
reasonable socio-economic means receive an inordinately greater amount of news media
coverage compared with an abduction involving a subject of contrasting race, ethnicity,
sex, pulchritude, age, or social status. Anecdotal evidence abound: Chandra Levy,
Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway readily come to mind for even the
most aloof consumers of mass media in the United States. Foreman (2006) argues that

Victimization & Drama in News


Missing White Woman Syndrome is characterized by a basal and cynical formulation:
Pretty, white damsels in distress draw viewers; missing women who are black, Latino,
Asian, old, fat, or ugly do not. Evidently, the phenomenon finds indemnity, once again,
in the contradiction between the perceived normative goal of editorial objectivity and the
strategic, fiscal imperatives of the media industry: increased viewership. In order to
capture and retain viewer attention, media outlets pander to the entertainment-orientation
of viewers, and disproportionately focus on the abduction and victimization of children
and adolescents and on white, middle class victims.
Despite these criticisms, no systematic study has been conducted to look into the
perceived imbalance of media coverage of victims of contrasting races, gender and age.
This exploratory study attempts to address this deficit. The importance of such an
endeavor is apparent. No reasonable person should come to any conclusion based on
anecdotal sensationalism, rather than verifiable statistical data or rational argument.
Unfortunately, haphazard, sensational accounts often guide political opportunists and
"moral entrepreneurs" in the formation of legislation and the mobilization of public
outrage over relatively rare instances of violent and/or sexual crimes (Fritz and Altheide,
1987).
It is the goal of this investigation to assess if the news media exhibits skewed
coverage of missing victims in terms of race, gender and age. This paper tries to
accomplish three objectives: empirically investigates the Missing White Woman
Syndrome, explicates theoretical rationales for the phenomenon, and identify dramatic
narrative elements that may contribute to such a perception. In this process, narrative
structures and theories are explored. The research also considers insight from Greek

Victimization & Drama in News


thinkers in conceptualizing dramatic narrative elements to analyze tales of distressed
kidnapped victims.
Literature Review
Victimization and Its Social Significance
News media reporting often focuses on the stories and personalities of victims as
dramatic elements that generate or maintain salience of the story (Chermak, 1995).
Discussion of victims has also been a consistent element of social problems research
because problems, by definition, involve some variety of injury to some variety of victim.
According to Best (1997), the rhetoric of victims rights paralleled the rhetoric of the
Civil Rights Movement. By the 1980s, victimization had become fashionable, the
therapeutic and self-help industries exploded in popularity, and victim advocacy
established itself as an industry. At the conceptual root of such broad socio-cultural
developments are two aspects of the ideology of victimization : the relationship
between the perpetrator and victim is unambiguous, and that claims regarding
victimization are to be respected, left unquestioned (Best, 1997, pp. 10-13).
If victims in general have been en vogue, children as victims have been especially
salient. For example, in the 1980s the missing children problem received a large amount
of political and mass media attention (Best, 1997, pp. 102-104). In many cases, horror
stories about child victims often serve to typify social problems in general (Johnson,
1995). Over time, sociologists have observed the persistence of child victims and their
salience for news events concerning many social problems. Similarly, children have
figured prominently as victims in crime myths because their perceived innocence plays
into their role as ideal victims (Kappeler & Potter, 2005).

Victimization & Drama in News


Tracing the origins of child victimization coverage in crime reporting, Freedman
(1987) compiled considerable evidence for the position that, by the 1930's, public outrage
over the broadly defined "sexual psychopath" was a byproduct of the redefinition of
sexual normality. Victorian concepts of male sexual agency, female purity and female
sexual passivity gave way to Freudian interpretations that recognized the existence of
overt and active female sexuality. This led an emphasis on children as potential victims
of unchecked masculine lust, and to vocalization of the need for legislation of sexual
"normalcy" by mass media, politicians, and citizen's groups. Children took on the role of
Edenic symbols of innocence and purity before the Fall, the transition from infancy to
adulthood acting as microcosmic reenactment of God's first condemnation of humanity's
disobedience (Kincaid, 1992, 71-75). Pre-pubescent children, like Adam and Eve, are
without shame, without knowledge of good and evil, and therefore vulnerable. Such
attributes become requisite for innocence and purity to exist, and thus children are to be
cloistered and diligently protected from those that would seek to corrupt them
prematurely (Kincaid, 1992, 71-75).
Moeller's (2002) formulation of the "hierarchy of innocence," corresponds readily
with such an interpretation. Analyzing mass media coverage of international conflict and
crisis, Moeller observed prioritization of victim status, focusing, in descending order,
upon "[...]infants, children under 12, pregnant women, teenage girls, elderly women, all
other women, teenage boys, and all other men." (Moeller, 2002, 49). Media outlets seek
to portray the brutality of a conflict by emphasizing civilian casualties, particularly
children and women Marketing consultants for international aid organizations implicitly
use this hierarchy in selecting poster children for a famine relief program (Moeller,

Victimization & Drama in News


2002). The press practice of linguistically de-gendering child abuse victims (e.g. use of
"child", "infant" or "it" as opposed to "boy" or "she") coincides with a desexualized
interpretation of childhood that further illustrates the association of innocence with youth
(Goddard and Saunders, 2000). Although dominant Western conceptions of innocence
and good stem from an absence of worldly corruption, and media producers may
understand innocence as a function of vulnerability toward physical or moral harm, both
interpretations are commonly employed in the development of dramatic narrative and the
determination of character archetypes, specifically "Princess" characters, or "Damsels in
Distress," and the villains and beasts that would do them harm (Douglas, 1995: 293-294).
Victimization and Dramatis Personae
In his systematic meta-analysis of formal features of Russian folktales, Propp
(1968) proposed that character attributes, setting, and specific actions exhibit seemingly
limitless variety, but that the fundamental dramatis personae can be distilled into seven
roles defined by their narrative function. The princess --"one who is sought after"--is
placed in this typology with her father, as the two characters often have interchangeable
functions: the princess may charge the hero with a quest to win her hand, or, having been
abducted, the father may compel the hero to seek the princess. These are variations of the
same functional outcome; the sought-after princess and the ability of her father to
ennoble the hero serve as the dual motivating objects for such a tale (Propp, 1968: 7991).
Rhrich's (2008/2002) analysis of female personages in Western European fairy
tales argued against a homogenized interpretation of heroines, although two key
attributes--passivity and pubescence--are conspicuously familiar aspects of female

Victimization & Drama in News


characters in modern Western folktale derivations, such as animated Disney
features. Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, all girls on the precipice of
adulthood, all physically beautiful, exhibit a naivete to wickedness, and a pious passivity
in the face of cruel oppression. Damsels in distress often radiate an archetypal innocence
that beckons heroic salvation. The popularity of these dramatic motifs inspire a continual
succession of derivative work. In a survey of modern children's literature, for example,
White (1986) found that narratives focused on rescue, abduction, and captivity featured
no male victims and no female saviors. A systematic content analysis of depictions of
child mistreatment by adult characters in Disney animated films has demonstrated not
only exceptionally high incidences, when compared to criminological statistics, of
emotional and physical abuse, neglect, captivity, inappropriate affectionate advances, and
threats of violence, but also an unrealistically optimistic view of successful rescue, or
familial reunification (Hubka, Hovdestad, & Tonmyr, 2009). In crafting dramatic
narrative, this thematic formula--the vulnerable and innocent protagonist's survival in
spite of hardship, villainy, and threat of corruption--elicits sympathy for suffering
endured and expectation of positive resolution (Hubka, Hovdestad & Tonmyr, 2009). Of
course, it is almost always the physical beauty of the princess figure that initially inspires
the dramatic conflict of the plot, whether due to the jealousy or avarice of the wicked
stepmother, or out of the lust of a smitten beast, a troll, or a criminal (Do Rozario, 2004;
Rhrich 2008/2002). This beauty transcends superficial evaluation; it signifies the
acceptance of and adherence to the status quo (Do Rozario, 2004). Taken in combination
with an assumed de facto youthful innocence and therefore moral good, the beautiful
princess symbolically inspires confidence in the chain-of-being.

Victimization & Drama in News

Victimization and Dramatic Elements


The prototypic American convergence of news and dramatic entertainment is
found in the classic account of the popular news show 20/20, which fared disastrously
when first aired in 1978. Facing cancellation, the shows format was expeditiously
changed from hard news to more entertainment-oriented spectacle, upon the advice of its
research team. Its three-decade survival serves as an irrefutable testament to the
inexorable value of combining dramatic elements and plots with news reporting, and its
successful formula has been heavily adopted by news organizations Media outlets
employ a multitude of devices to enhance the dramatic value of a news item. Frequent
techniques include the exaggeration of conflicting elements to present stark dramatic
contrasts, explication of misfortune or victimhood, and the establishment of clear,
adversarial relationships. Dramatic devices may also include an emphasis on positive
and negative human interactions, such as friendliness and hostility, which may arouse
feelings of empathy, joy, grief, fear, and anger. Tailoring a storys attributes in this way
elicits audience empathy, and coaxes viewers into identifying with the victim or victims
loved ones. (Miller, 2006 p300).
Although arguably constituting an abrogation of the purpose of the news media,
the inclusion of dramatic elements and plots evidently represents the archetypal approach
to news reporting. The underlying rationale for this modus operandi is that news is one
of many genres of storytelling that enlighten and entertain viewers, listeners and readers
(Grabe & Zhou, 2003). Inherent in this exposition is the assumption that news reporting
devoid of dramatic elements can be potentially perceived as bland, dull, and therefore

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alienating to audiences. Considering the exigencies of market-driven mass media, there
is, decidedly, intrinsic value in the convergence of journalism and fiscal imperatives
(McManus, 1994); alienating viewers would be largely inexpedient and counter-intuitive.
To this end, the need for drama appears to be both an inescapable and de rigueur part of
news stories. The veracity in this assertion is perhaps best confirmed in the legendary
memo executive producer Reuven Frank of NBC News sent to his staff which charged,
[e]very news story should, without any sacrifice of probity or responsibility,
display the attributes of fiction, of drama. It should have structure and conflict,
problem and denouement, rising action and falling action, a beginning, a middle,
and an end. These are not only the essentials of drama: they are the essentials of
narrative (Epstein, 1973, pp. 4-5).
This almost theatrical exegesis finds fervid support in the literature. While
Postman (1988) categorically declared that news was theatre, other scholars asserted that
news reporting in the media was more an execution of dramatic effects than a legitimate
representation of the goings on in the world (Tuchman, 1978; Graber, 1994). In an
apparent censure on the populist view, German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer,
vindicated the media for its insouciant propensity to employ dramatic devices in news
coverage: Exaggeration of every kind is as essential to journalism as it is to dramatic art,
for the object of journalism is to make events go as far as possible (Schopenhauer,
2008).
The insights of Greek thinkers-who practically invented drama in storytelling
can also be used to explain the lineage and logic of news drama in contemporary
kidnapping coverage. According to Aristotle, the success of drama consists of three
componentslogos, ethos and pathos. The logos strategy is to convince audience
members by responding to a particular situation in a partisan way. The rhetorical
guidelines for a partisan description are vividness and clarity, which in kidnapping stories

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are best exemplified by innocence, vulnerability, and depravity of the perpetrators. The
ethos strategy is based on efforts to establish the reliability and credibility of the speaker,
who is then able to establish the moral integrity and factual authority of the main
argument. In this case, the salvation of the damsel in distress speaks directly to the moral
force when the villain is brought to justice. Finally, the pathos strategy is designed
specifically to arouse strong emotions in the audience (Aristotle, 1954). Kidnapping
stories have plenty of such fodder: violence, sex and contrast, conflicts and dilemmas are
staples of such tales.
. Although a highly compelling event, such as a kidnapping, automatically
contains, for example, the dramatic element of emotion, the event itself is not necessarily
responsible for the creation of drama. The methods by which news is packaged, and the
narrative techniques employed in its presentation, serve a fundamental role. Producers
frequently arrange information scenically to construct a plot, elicit or sustain a mood, or
support a narrative perspective. (Berner, 1988; Grabe, Zhou, & Barnett, 2001; Grabe,
Zhou, Lang, & Bolls, 2000). As Rosenthal (1999) argued, the use of these techniques is
to particularize an event around a story line with characters. The dramatic features help
render an intimate depiction of the main figures, whose lives and experiences are
portrayed with intensity and focus. Such integration of novel information with familiar
narrative devices facilitates empathy. Viewers are not merely invited into an exposition
but also to view a drama of highly imaginative potency.
Just as entertainment industry firms commonly repackage archetypes to generate
successful film franchises, modern news agencies, in their role as storytellers, employ
traditional dramatis personae and narrative structures and plot elements to generate
appealing and compelling information commodities (Barkin, 1984).
Media construction of narratives frequently avoids nuance and moral ambiguity
(Barkin, 1984). Youth, race, and gender can be understood to independently signify

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vulnerability, innocence, and desirability, and certain combinations of these factors can
intensify the conveyance of such attributes, heightening a story's dramatic conflict
(Moeller, 2002). Conflict is distilled into elemental positions of good and evil, or of
innocence and depravity. Such representations further serve to strengthen the moral
stance of "objective" journalism, and discourage rational criticism or dissent. (Kincaid,
1992; Moeller, 2002). Furthermore, chaotic and mundane phenomena from everyday
reality, grafted onto archetypal narrative frames that are best suited for communicating
with clear causality--extraordinary deeds carried out by fantastic characters, facilitate
sensationalism and conflate exceptions for rules (Barkin, 1984; Aust & Zillman, 1984;
Chermak, 1995). However, considering the dominant normative conceptions of an
atrocity such as kidnapping the abduction of a defenseless, vulnerable child - the
substantive content of the crime may ostensibly be deemed adequate for providing the
nexus for a media maelstrom; narrative or archetypal embellishments may prove entirely
unnecessary. In order to determine the manner in which actual victims and events are (or
are not) represented by mass media organizations, an analysis of news reports related to
AMBER Alert child abduction and victimization cases was conducted.
The AMBER Alert
The disturbing case of Amber Hagerman, who was abducted and murdered in
Texas in 1996, served as the impetus for the AMBER (America's Missing: Broadcast
Emergency Response) Alert program. On January 13, 1996, Amber Hagerman was
abducted while riding her bicycle and brutally murdered. The AMBER Alert network
was created in response to this tragic event. AMBER Alerts are essentially emergency
messages that are broadcast by law enforcement agencies when a child is abducted and is

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facing menacing danger. Information such as physical description, the abductors vehicle,
and other salient facts are furnished to the public to facilitate the safe return of the
abductee. This early warning system was the result of collaboration between Dallas-Fort
Worth broadcasters and local police after Amber Hagermans tragic death. The Justice
Department defines the AMBER Alert Program as
a voluntary partnership between law-enforcement agencies, broadcasters,
transportation agencies, and the wireless industry, to activate an urgent bulletin in
the most serious child-abduction cases. The goal of an AMBER Alert is to
instantly galvanize the entire community to assist in the search for and the safe
recovery of the child. (USDJ, 2010)
According to the Department of Justice, the AMBER Alert program has been
responsible for helping with safe recovery of 495 children since its inception.
Additionally, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin
Islands have now instituted AMBER Alert plans. These statistics bear testimony to the
ostensible success of the program, and provides tacit evidence that the public has
favorably embraced it throughout the United States and its regions.
The AMBER Alert program provides an ideal forum to look into how stories
involving AMBER victims were portrayed in the news media. Specifically, this paper
looked at three aspects of such coverage by asking the following three research questions:
1.

Is coverage disproportionately associated with AMBER victims of belonging


to specific race, sex, or age categories, as some critics have claimed?

2. The literature indicates that the potential intensity of dramatic content is much
greater in cases where strangers, rather than family members, perpetrate
abductions, or if physical or psychological harm befalls the victim. Are

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variables such as the perpetrators relationship to the victim or the crimes
degree of atrocity correlated to the amount of coverage the story receives?
3. Finally, the paper also looks at the narrative treatments of these stories and
map them against the predictors of race, gender and age to determine if there
are any differences in their narrative potential. In other words, do the stories
differ in narrative treatments when the victim is White, female, or young, in
contrast to a victim who is Black, male, or more mature?
Method
To answer research questions, a content analysis was conducted. The data for this
study are derived from a census of the 136 AMBER Alerts issued from July 2005 to
March 2008 and listed on the Americas Most Wanted: Missing Children website. The
website and affiliate television program are dedicated to fighting on behalf of children
and all crime victims (AMW Website, 2010). The site and television program claim to
have helped to take down over 1,050 dangerous fugitives and bring home more than 50
missing children in the past 22 years (AMW Website, 2010). The website has a
comprehensive list of children for which recent AMBER Alerts have been issued. The
website also has a searchable, by year, archive of children for which AMBER Alerts have
been issued. While this archive is not exhaustive it includes all interstate issued AMBER
Alerts and provides descriptions of the children, case details, descriptions of potential
perpetrators, as well status of the investigation. This site was cross-referenced and
compared to the Code Amber Website used in previous studies (Griffin, et. al, 2007). The
AMW site was found to be more comprehensive and complete, particularly for more
recent AMBER Alerts as the Code Amber Website is no longer updated regularly. All

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available listed AMBER Alerts (136) for the time span of July 2005 to March 2008 were
analyzed.
The list of names provided from the AMW website were then cross referenced to
archived stories featuring the childs name in the New York Times and USA Today
newspapers, as well as in broadcast transcript archives from CNN and Foxnews websites.
These news organizations were chosen for their viewership, devotion to comprehensive
news coverage, as well as their stewardship of the news agenda and their use in an
exhaustive list of research content analyses of news coverage.
Coders then analyzed each news story or broadcast transcript on three sets of
factors. The first set of variables included demographics: gender, race, socio-economic
status and age of the victim (age was reported as a raw number and categorized in four
groups: 0-5 yr olds, 6-10 yr olds, 11-15 yr olds, 16+). The second set of variables
assessed variables related to the alert: time missing (in days), relationship of victim to
suspected perpetrator (stranger abduction, parental abduction, abduction by acquaintance
of the victim, abduction by friend of the family, other/runaway), whether or not the
victim was described as physically or psychologically harmed, and number of suspected
perpetrators, race and age of perpetrator, and whether or not the perpetrator was a
previously convicted sex offender. The third set of variables dealt with narrative elements
of the stories. Coders analyzed each story for the following dramatic elements: Conflict
(presence of stated dispute or altercation), Contrast (story is contrasted to another similar
event or past story), Dilemma (law enforcement or parents face crisis outside of the
abduction that hinders efforts of investigation), Empathy (expressed empathy to family of
victim or child abducted), Violence (physical abuse toward the child or others directly

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related to the case, including law enforcement), Sex (sexual acts or potential sexual acts
perpetrated against the child), Innocence (of the victim, as in lack of deserving
mistreatment- this category does not relate to guilt or innocence of potential perpetrators),
Vulnerability (of child, of children of certain ages, races, or socio-economic classes), Evil
(demonizing of perpetrator), and Lurid details (graphic descriptions of acts or potential
acts committed against the child by perpetrator(s)).
Several sessions of coder training were conducted and the two primarily coders
conferred often to compare notes before coding separately. Overall intercoder reliability
for content analyses of news coverage using Holstis formula was .95. Overall intercoder
reliability for dramatic elements using Holstis formula was .91.

Results
The first research question asked if disproportionate coverage was related to the
AMBER victims gender, age, or race.
In terms of gender, of the total 136 cases examined, 91 (66.9%) were female and
45 (33.1%) were male. The study showed no significant differences in amount of
coverage between males and females (t (134)= -.116, p=.908). The mean number of
stories reported for each child based on gender (m=3.28 stories for males, m= 3.51 stories
for females) was not statistically significant.
The study found significant differences in the coverage of victims based upon
race. (F(3, 132)=3.05, p=.03). An ANOVA using a Bonferoni post hoc procedure found
that white children were featured in significantly more stories overall than Hispanic
children (m=6.029 for white children, m=.2703 for Hispanic children, p=.049). Hispanics
received the lowest mean number of reported stories of any group (n= 37, m=.27)

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compared to Whites (n=69, m= 6.02), and blacks (n= 28, m=1.03) (Asians were omitted
from the analysis because of a low sample size, n=2).
No significant differences in amount of coverage between categories of age (F(3,
132)= .630, p=.59). The mean number of stories reported for each child based on age
categories (m= 3.29 (n= 67) for ages 0-5, m=5.44 (n=27) for ages 6-10, m=3.34 (n=26)
for ages 11-15, m= .8125 (n=16) for ages 16 and over) were not significantly different.
The second research question asked if other variables involving the AMBER
victim might correlate with amount of coverage. These other variables included the
temporal length of abduction, the relationship of the victim to the suspected
perpetrator(s), whether the suspect was a previously convicted sex offender, and if the
child was physically or psychologically harmed.
The study found a significant positive correlation with amount of time missing
and number or stories (r(134) = .249, p=.003). Children missing longer than 5 days
(n=35, m=8.48) had the most news stories followed by, children missing 3-4 days (n=28,
m=2.35), children missing 1-2 days (n=43, m=1.8), and less than 24 hours missing (n=30,
m=.9).
The study found significant differences between the number of news stories
reported for Familiar abductions versus Unfamiliar abductions. Of the 136 cases, 46 were
Non--Family/Friend (m=7.82) and 90 were Family/Friend abductions (m=1.07). The
frequency of stories was significantly greater for cases involving Unfamiliar perpetrators
(t (134)= 3.58, p=.01).
The study found significant differences (F(2, 133)= 18.81, p=.001) between cases
in which suspected perpetrators had prior convictions for sexual offences (n=5, m=15.8)
and cases in which suspects had no prior record of sexual offences (n=111, m=1.10), or in
which suspect identity was ambiguous (n=20, m=13.94 A Bonferoni post hoc procedure
found that cases in which suspects had prior convictions of sexual offences, and cases in

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which suspects were unidentified, had significantly more stories than those in which
suspects had no previous sexual offence record.
The study found significant differences (F(2, 133)= 5.24, p=.006) in number of
total stories for when the victim was physically harmed (n=28, m=8.39), when the victim
was not physically harmed (n=87, m=1.36), and the uncertainty about whether the victim
was harmed or not (n=21, m= 5.42). A Bonferoni post hoc procedure found that when the
victim was physically harmed there were significantly more stories than when the victim
was not harmed physically.
The study found significant differences (F(2, 133)= 5.01, p=.008) in number of
total stories for when the victim was psychologically harmed (n=24, m=8.66), when the
victim was not psychologically harmed (n=75, m=1.17), and the uncertainty about
whether the victim was harmed or not (n= 37, m= 4.64). A Bonferoni post hoc procedure
found that when the victim was psychologically harmed there were significantly more
stories than when the victim was not harmed psychologically.
The third research question asked if the narrative treatments of news stories were
correlated with gender, race, and age.
For gender, the study found no significant differences between narrative
treatments and gender in any of the narrative categories (see Table 1).

[Insert Table 1 about here]

In terms of race, the study found significant differences in six of the ten narrative
elements, including conflict, dilemma, empathy, violence, innocence and vulnerability.
The categories that did not show statistical significance were contrast, sex, evil and lurid
detail (see Table 2). Bonferoni post hoc analyses revealed that the differences existed
between stories for missing Whites and Hispanics. No differences were found between
Whites and Blacks, nor Blacks and Hispanics.

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[Insert Table 2 about here]

In terms of age, the study found significant differences in eight of the ten
narrative elements, including conflict, empathy, violence, sex, innocence, vulnerability,
evil and lurid detail. The categories that did not show statistical significance were
contrast, and dilemma (see Table 3). Bonferoni post hoc analyses revealed that the
differences existed between stories for missing children 0-5 years of age and 6-10 years
of age. No differences were found among other age groups.

[Insert Table 3 about here]

Because many narrative categories were significant for both race and age, the two
variables were further analyzed to see if there were any interaction effects. Results
indicated that within every age category, White children received more coverage in every
narrative category (Due to the small sample size (n=2), Asians were omitted from
analysis).

[Insert Table 4 about here]

Conclusions and Discussions


Popular and scholarly critics have reacted to the mainstream medias seemingly
disproportionate attention to the plights of abduction victims of contrasting genders, ages,
and races by offering the diagnosis of Missing White Women Syndrome. This
phenomenon is frequently lamented but previously lacked systematic investigation. The
present study analyzed two sizable bodies of datacriminological data related to the

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national-level abduction of minors in the United States, and the coverage of each case by
major print and televisual news organizationsand found empirical evidence for several
rational arguments.
There are some very interesting findings. By and large, gender alone was not a
significant predictor of the amount of coverage for abductions. Missing males and
females were likely to receive the same amount of media attention. Age also did not
make a difference. Similarly, the age of the victim was insignificant; young missing
children and adolescent teenages received roughly equal time. Race mattered, to an
extent. Whites received more coverage than Hispanics. Yet, there was no observed
disparity between coverage of cases involving White and Black victims, nor Black and
Hispanic victims.
The length of time that a child was missing was found to be a fundamental factor
in predicting the amount of press coverage a case received, and this exhibited a rather
positive linear relationship. Furthermore, if the perpetrator was a non-family member,
the amount of stories increased. If the villain was a previous sex offender, coverage
skyrocketed. Similarly, coverage intensified when the victim was known to be physically
and/or psychologically harmed, but remained missing. The mediated presentation of
such cases was observed to have commonality with traditional tales of abduction-bystranger and narratives based upon the contrast of the diametrically-opposed concepts
such as of innocence and depravity, and, by extension, good and evil. Such cases
contained elements with high dramatic potential; their particular details inherently made
for riveting and evocative news fodder, and therefore the motivations of media producers
for focusing attentively on them seem rather intuitive. The narrative plots were clear:

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innocence was threatened by corruption and rescue was an undebatable moral imperative.
being corrupted and needed rescue. There was no ambiguity and no nuance that might
obscure the storyline: the vulnerable protagonists fate was uncertain, but, without doubt
survival required, if not heroic deeds, at least heroic efforts.
What, then, is to be made of the Damsel in Distress? Clearly the data indicated
that it did not matter whether the victim was a damsel or a lad, stripling or mademoiselle.
Merely distress was enough of a selling point to generate and maintain the salience of a
news event. The successful defeat and destruction of the causal agent of this distressa
criminal, a beast, or a trollwas required in order to preserve innocence and restore
harmony. Distress, functioning as an essential ingredient of the tragedy, automatically
established the threatened protagonist and menacing antagonist (regardless of whether the
latters identity was known), and thus indicated a simple plotline, simultaneously
sensational and uncontroversial, that carried high potential for viewer salience, prolonged
attention, and advertising revenue. If distress is given priority over the damsel, how
can the condemnation of Missing White Woman Syndrome be understood? Of all the
AMBER Alert victims, one may note that there were twice as many females (66.9%)
missing than males (33.1%). Among all missing females, 71% of them were Whites, a
percentage which is not significantly divergent from general U.S. population
demographics Girls were simply abducted more than were boys, which may contribute to
an impression that coverage for missing girls is disproportionate.
However, closer examination of the narrative structures and dramatic elements
employed to convey stories involving young, White victims , found them to significantly
differ from the manner in which abductions of older children, or Black or Hispanic

22

Victimization & Drama in News


victims, were portrayed Overall, the plight of young (ages 0-10), White victims was
communicated to audiences with a much higher incidence of several dramatic elements,
notably: conflict, innocence, vulnerability, evil, and lurid details
Sample sizes for some categories were, unfortunately, not large enough for many
statistical operations to be performed on the data. However, it seems intuitive that
dramatic elements and narrative treatments would become more and more prevalent
during continued coverage for any particular caseas new details come to light, or as
new perspectives on the incident are explored (e.g. the ordeal of the victims family,
thoughts of the suspects co-workers, or how one abduction may parallel a previous highprofile abduction). Children abducted by strangers for more than 48 hours were
numerically more likely to be White, whereas familiar abduction was more evenly
distributed along racial/ethnic categories. A prolonged abduction by a stranger allows for
media outlets to orchestrate a clever parade of narrative treatments. Such cases were
richer in dramatic potential than stories in which such embellishments were not feasible.
Considering that, numerically, these incidents involved young, White victims and that
females were more frequently victimized the sensational stories of these young White
victims in the media maelstrom, over time, might be a contributing factor to the
misconceived notion of Missing White Women Syndrome.
It is the belief of the researchers that the reality behind Missing White Woman
Syndrome is considerably more complex and nuanced than simply disproportionate
attention to victimization of specific ethnic or gender groups. Instead, it appears that
news organizations devote significant resources, and presumably attract the attention of
audiences, to the prolongation of morally unambiguous dramatic tension. This

23

Victimization & Drama in News


distinction is significant because the intense focus on sensational, exceedingly rare,
horrific criminal acts, coupled with the encouragement of audience diligence over a
considerable length of time creates a feedback loop of heightened alert. Regardless of the
victims age, ethnicity, or sex, it seems that such journalistic practices exploit victims and
audiences alike, while neglecting its normative professional goals.
Several limitations are present in the current investigation. Most significantly, the
sample population of abduction cases that led to the issuance of nation-wide AMBER
Alerts should not be assumed to necessarily represent the totality of child abduction
crimes in the United States. AMBER Alert policies differ from state to state, and the
criteria for nationwide Alerts would exclude cases in which the whereabouts of missing
children were localized. Similarly, AMBER Alert cases may not represent the totality of
missing childrens or missing persons coverage in mainstream news outlets. For
example, the highly-publicized case of missing high-school student Natalee Holloway
involved no issuance of an AMBER Alert. At the time of this writing, no publicly
available statistical data for child abduction exists in the U.S., and record-keeping
practices and access policies vary between states.
Future research may be able to further investigate the representation of abduction
victims in mass media by analyzing, for example, use of images, video, and production
elements in the coverage of one category of victim versus another. The use of televisual
journalism to facilitate passive participation in the televised searches for missing
children, or to shape attitudes toward certain categories of suspects may be of interest to
scholars of political communication, persuasion, or social psychology.

24

Victimization & Drama in News

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Table 1: Gender and Average Number of Narrative Elements


Narrative Elements

Male (n=45)

Female (n=91)

Conflict

1.7

1.6

.06

.95

Contrast

.80

.40

.80

.42

Dilemma

1.75

1.30

.52

.60

Empathy

1.34

1.19

.18

.86

Violence

1.57

1.59

-.021

.98

Sex

.80

1.13

-.43

.68

Innocence

1.57

1.63

-.07

.95

Vulnerable

1.77

1.71

.06

.95

Evil

.91

1.00

-.11

.91

Lurid Detail

.51

.81

.75

.52

Victimization & Drama in News


29
Table 2: Race and Average Number of Narrative Elements

Narrative Elements

White

Black

Hispanic

(n=69)

(n=28)

(n=37)

(2, 131)

Conflict

2.94 (6.92)a

.61 (1.37)

.08 (.36)b

4.67

.011**

Contrast

1.00 (3.67)

.07 (.262)

.00 (.00)

2.24

.111

Dilemma

2.49 (6.32) a

.57 (1.52)

.16 (.44) b

3.71

.028**

Empathy

2.23 (6.08) a

.32 (.86)

.08 (.27) b

3.64

.029**

Violence

2.81 (7.06) a

.64 (1.63)

.00 (.00) b

4.19

.017**

Sex

1.88 (5.74)

.25 (1.32)

.00 (.00)

3.05

.051

Innocence

2.86 (7.24) a

.46 (1.40)

.16 (.37) b

3.99

.021**

Vulnerable

3.06 (7.50) a

.54 (1.57)

.16 (.44) b

4.23

.017**

Evil

1.77 (5.95)

.29 (1.32)

.00 (.00)

2.44

.091

Lurid Detail

1.35 (4.73)

.11 (.56)

.03 (.16)

2.37

.097

Note. Means that do not share subscripts differ at p < .05 in the F test within the same
predictor. Values in parentheses are standard deviations.

Victimization & Drama in News


30
Table 3: Age and Average Number of Narrative Elements

Narrative

0-5

6-10

11-15

16-20

Elements

(n=65)

(n=27)

(n=26)

(n=16)

(3,130)

Conflict

1.00 (2.51) a

4.15 (9.96)b

1.62 (3.59)

.25 (1.00)

2.96

.035**

Contrast

.14 (.429) a

1.78 (5.60) b

.42 (1.57)

.19 (.750)

2.61

.054

Dilemma

1.03 (2.59)

3.15 (9.13)

1.38 (2.98)

.38 (1.08)

1.64

.182

Empathy

.62 (1.42) a

3.67 (9.32) b

.69 (1.71)

.56 (1.99)

3.48

.018**

Violence

.85 (2.74) a

4.15 (10.16) b

1.46 (3.14)

.44 (1.50)

2.94

.036**

Sex

.22 (.82) a

3.33 (8.67) b

1.15 (2.78)

.19 (.54)

3.90

.010**

Innocence

.89 (2.18) a

4.37 (10.74) b

1.12 (2.55)

.69 (2.75)

3.13

.028**

Vulnerable

.97 (2.22) a

4.52 (11.14) b

1.38 (3.06)

.69 (2.75)

2.98

.034**

Evil

.12 (.875) a

3.59 (9.00) b

.77 (2.28)

.31 (1.25)

4.50

.005**

Lurid Detail

.25 (1.03) a

2.41 (7.18) b

.54 (1.72)

.13 (.50)

2.85

.040**

Note. Means that do not share subscripts differ at p < .05 in the F test within the same
predictor. Values in parentheses are standard deviations.

31

Victimization & Drama in News

Table 4: Age, Race and Average Number of Narrative Elements


Narrative
Elements
Conflict

Contrast

Dilemma

Empathy

Violence

Sex

Innocence

Vulnerable

Evil

Lurid Detail

Age
Category
0-5
6-10
11-15
16+
0-5
6-10
11-15
16+
0-5
6-10
11-15
16+
0-5
6-10
11-15
16+
0-5
6-10
11-15
16+
0-5
6-10
11-15
16+
0-5
6-10
11-15
16+
0-5
6-10
11-15
16+
0-5
6-10
11-15
16+
0-5
6-10
11-15
16+

White
Children (n) m
(31) 1.87
(15) 6.80
(13) 3.00
(10) .40
(31) .23
(15) 3.20
(13) .85
(10) .30
(31) 1.90
(15) 5.00
(13) 2.46
(10) .60
(31) 1.13
(15) 6.13
(13) 1.38
(10) .90
(31) 1.61
(15) 6.73
(13) 2.77
(10) .70
(31) .45
(15) 5.53
(13) 2.31
(10) .30
(31) 1.65
(15) 7.20
(13) 2.08
(10) 1.10
(31) 1.81
(15) 7.40
(13) 2.54
(10) 1.87
(31) .23
(15) 6.00
(13) 1.54
(10) .50
(31) .48
(15) 4.13
(13) 1.08
(10) .20

Black
Children (n) m
(15) .33
(9) 1.11
(4) .50
(0) .00
(15) .13
(9) .00
(4) .00
(0) .00
(15) .27
(9) 1.11
(4) .50
(0) .00
(15) .20
(9) .67
(4) .00
(0) .00
(15) .33
(9) 1.22
(4) .50
(0) .00
(15) .00
(9) .78
(4) .00
(0) .00
(15) .27
(9) 1.00
(4) .00
(0) .00
(15) .27
(9) 1.11
(4) .25
(0) .00
(15) .07
(9) .78
(4) .00
(0) .00
(15) .00
(9) .33
(4) .00
(0) .00

Hispanic
Children (n) m
(19) .11
(3) .00
(9) .11
(6) .00
(19) .00
(3) .00
(9) .00
(6) .19
(19) .21
(3) .00
(9) .22
(6) .00
(19) .11
(3) .33
(9) .00
(6) .00
(19) .00
(3) .00
(9) .00
(6) .00
(19) .00
(3) .00
(9) .00
(6) .00
(19) .16
(3) .33
(9) .22
(6) .00
(19) .16
(3) .33
(9) .22
(6) .00
(19) .00
(3) .00
(9) .00
(6) .00
(19) .05
(3) .00
(9) .00
(6) .00