The Media
Chapter 3

One shot on the evening news is worth 20,000 posters.

-- Patrick Sessions

The media can be important allies in the search for your missing child. But media interest in your case may be either intense or lukewarm, depending upon the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of your child and the media's judgment of what is newsworthy.

If you are subjected to intensive media coverage, welcome the attention, even though it may feel uncomfortable, because it is the fastest and most important way to distribute information about and pictures of your child. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the amount of attention, ask law enforcement to help you deal with the sudden barrage of reporters and requests for interviews. However, if the media do not take an interest in your case, there are a number of things you can do to get the media involved. This chapter offers suggestions for generating, maintaining, and managing media involvement.

Media Involvement: The First 48 Hours

During the first 48 hours, you need to do as much as you can to generate media interest in the search for your child. The following tips can help.

Contact the media immediately. Media publicity is the best way to generate leads from the public concerning your child. In most cases, the media should be contacted immediately, because time is not on your child's side. You can ask law enforcement to make the initial calls to media outlets, but if this is not done within the first hour, call and give the information to the assignment editors yourself. Intense, early media coverage ensures that people will be looking for your child. Sometimes the coverage is so intense it causes an abductor to let the child go.

Ask radio and television stations to run short clips about the disappearance or to break into their regular programming with information, as is done with a weather warning or other emergency broadcast. Don't wait until the evening news to have information disseminated about your child. Time is of the essence.

Although television coverage is crucial in getting out pictures and stories of your child, don't ignore other types of media. Print and radio media reach tens of thousands of homes each day, and they may be more generous in their treatment of your story. Many people are likely to hear about your child's disappearance first on their car radios. Supplement those broadcasts with stories and pictures of your child in the earliest possible edition of your local newspaper.

Law enforcement may need to be convinced that the media are important allies in a missing child case. Sometimes law enforcement is reluctant to get the media involved in an active criminal investigation. If your law enforcement agency is reluctant, you will have to work closely with your primary contact. Point out that swift use of the media has led to the successful recovery of more than one missing child and that your child's safety and recovery are more important than building a case against a suspect. Emphasize that you are going to be around for interrogation as weeks pass, but your child's life is in imminent jeopardy. Ask if certain information should not be released because it might jeopardize the case or the safety of your child and honor that request. As a last resort, ask NCMEC, your State missing children's clearinghouse, and missing children's organizations to assist in the event that your law enforcement agency does not want to involve the media.

Prepare a media package and give it to all representatives of the media. The media package should include basic information about your child, including:

  • A complete description of your child and of the clothing he or she was wearing at the time of the disappearance.

  • A description of the place where your child was last seen.

  • Black-and-white and color photos.

  • A phone number for people to call with possible leads.

  • Details of the reward, if one is being offered.

  • Other pertinent information that could help in the recovery of your child, such as a suspicious vehicle near the location where your child was last seen.

A media package will ensure that all reporters start with the same information and will reduce the amount of time you spend answering basic questions. When you prepare a media package, make enough copies to distribute, then keep the original in a safe place in case you need it again in the future.

Setting Ground Rules

In the very beginning, media interest is likely to be both intense and intimidating. Therefore, it's important for you to establish ground rules as to where and how often you or your spokesperson will meet with the media. The following tips can help.

  • Schedule specific times and locations so reporters know when and where they will be able to ask questions and obtain information. Remember that you control the situation -- the media do not control you.

  • Choose a location that is convenient for you but that allows the media the space they need to cover the story. For example, you may feel most comfortable holding interviews either outside your house or inside one room. That way, you can allow the media to glimpse your child's personal life without letting them become too invasive.

  • Don't open up your home to the media without restrictions or limitations. If you do, you will lose all privacy, and the presence of reporters could interfere with officers working at the scene.

  • Don't feel that you are personally obligated to provide all interviews or to participate in all media events. Ask law enforcement, your family spokesperson, and other family members to help.

  • Remember that you have the ability to set limits in terms of timing, scheduling, and making rules concerning the use of pictures of your other children. Be sure that the media are aware of your rules and that you expect them to be followed.

Select someone to function as a media spokesperson if you feel you are not able to speak alone. Audiences identify with the fear and anguish parents feel when their child is missing. Seeing your face and hearing your voice will motivate viewers to look closer at the picture of your child and to search harder for him or her. Therefore, it is best if you can speak on your child's behalf. However, don't feel you need to be a great speaker. Just talk from your heart and let people know you love your child and need their help in finding and bringing your child home. Bolster your confidence by having someone you know stand beside you to provide support and step in if necessary. On the other hand, if you or your spouse feel unable to deal with the media, choose someone you trust to speak for you, and try to stand beside your spokesperson during the interview. The checklist Conducting Interviews With the Media gives more specific tips on interviews with both print and broadcast journalists.

Schedule press conferences and interviews around media deadlines. The media operate on deadlines. If you schedule a press conference either too early or too late in the day, reporters will find it difficult to finish their pieces in time to meet their daily deadlines. Consult with reporters to find out when and how often they would like to meet with you. Many parents have found 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. to be good times because they give reporters enough time to prepare stories for both the noon and evening news and because many reporters have openings in their schedule at these times.

Do not schedule draining interviews or speeches back to back. Realize that you have limited mental and physical resources and that if you are not fresh, you will not be effective. If you have an opportunity to appear on a popular radio or television show or on a national network, give this engagement priority over others. However, remember that local television and radio stations will be in your community after the networks leave, so work to develop a long-term relationship with them. Sometimes you can ask local stations to rerun portions of an interview you did with the national affiliate.

Avoid scheduling press conferences that conflict with an important event. If you want to make an important announcement, such as a reward offer, make sure you aren't competing with another scheduled event. Find out what events are listed in the day book -- often kept by Associated Press -- which is used by local media to keep track of newsworthy occurrences. Set your press conference for a time when nothing else significant is happening.

Ask NCMEC or law enforcement to contact America's Most Wanted on your behalf. The staff of this television program, which broadcasts nationally, have a special interest in helping to recover abducted children. Sometimes the production staff move very rapidly to get an abducted child's story on the air.

Be aware of your public status. Although this is not the kind of fame you want, you may attain some sort of "celebrity" standing because of your continuous involvement with the media. This sudden public status can be very intrusive. People will recognize and approach you wherever you go. The media may turn up at any time and any place, asking for information. You may be filmed any time you are in a public place -- and even through the windows of your own home, if the photographer uses a powerful lens. Therefore, for your child's sake, conduct yourself as if all eyes were upon you. Realize that you no longer have the same privacy you once had. Try not to be paranoid, but be careful. Don't do things that might cast you in a negative light, but don't feel guilty if you go out to dinner or to the movies to relieve the stress as the days and weeks pass.

Review all media stories, comments, and tapes. Parents, family members, and friends should review all media spots and events in case they contain clues or pieces of information that could help you at a later date. For example, comments by particular individuals, multiple appearances by one individual, or knowledge of personal or confidential information not previously revealed may help to pinpoint either the perpetrator or persons close to the perpetrator.

If your child is returned, don't let him or her review any tapes of the suspect. This may jeopardize identification of the suspect by your child when a lineup is scheduled by law enforcement.

Media Involvement: After the First 48 Hours

At first, you may feel overwhelmed by the intense media interest generated by your child's disappearance. After a week or so, however, if your child has not been found, you may run into the opposite problem. If media interest dies down, you will have to work to keep the story going. Here are some things you can do to keep your child's story in the public eye.

Devise "media hooks" to keep your child's story in front of the public. Schedule a press conference on an important day, such as National Missing Children's Day (May 25), or prepare a press release to coincide with Federal or State legislation relating to missing, exploited, or victimized children. Remember, you don't know how long you will have to search for your child, so you need to plan for the long term. Ask a family member or friend to help if you find the task too difficult.

Give the story a new slant. To give the story a new look, you may want to change the tone of your interviews. Try bringing in someone new to discuss the case, such as a politician, sports personality, popular entertainer, or someone close to the investigation.

Pace yourself. Parcel out new developments in the case in separate announcements to spread coverage over a longer period of time. Ask law enforcement to notify the press of significant developments, such as important leads or items found during the physical search.

Keep the story alive by tying it to a variety of events and activities. You can hold a candlelight vigil, announce a reward, or show how celebrations such as a birthday, holiday, or graduation are different without your child. You can tie your child's story to something that will be broadcast repeatedly, such as a popular song on the radio. Then, every time the song plays, it will be a reminder that your child is still missing. If you can create a way for the media to present your child's story in a different way, it is more likely to be run. Remember that media attention increases when you hold special events and when anniversaries come up. Also, remember to coordinate all events and activities with law enforcement, because they can be an important part of the overall investigative strategy.

Victim's Bill of Rights

Appearing on air, whether television or radio, is a new experience for most people. The anxiety produced by this new experience, combined with the trauma of the initial victimization and the retelling of it, underscores the need for parent victims to maintain control over the situation. The following guidelines were written by the National Victim Center to minimize the possibility of a second victimization inflicted by the mishandling of a story by the media.

  • You have the right to say no to an interview.

  • You have the right to select the spokesperson or advocate of your choice.

  • You have the right to select the time and location for media interviews.

  • You have the right to request a specific reporter.

  • You have the right to refuse an interview with a specific reporter even though you have granted interviews to other reporters.

  • You have the right to say no to an interview even though you have previously granted interviews.

  • You have the right to release a written statement through a spokesperson in lieu of an interview.

  • You have the right to exclude children from interviews.

  • You have the right to refrain from answering any questions that make you uncomfortable or that seem inappropriate.

  • You have the right to know in advance what direction the story about your victimization is going to take.

  • You have the right to ask for review of your quotations in a storyline prior to publication.

  • You have the right to avoid a press conference atmosphere and to speak to only one reporter at a time.

  • You have the right to demand a retraction when inaccurate information is reported.

  • You have the right to ask that offensive photographs or visuals be omitted from airing or publication.

  • You have the right to conduct a television interview using a silhouette or a newspaper interview without having your photograph taken.

  • You have the right to completely give your side of the story related to your victimization.

  • You have the right to refrain from answering reporters' questions during trial.

  • You have the right to file a formal complaint against a reporter.

  • You have the right to grieve in privacy.

  • You have the right to suggest training for the media on how they can prevent additional traumatization for victims.

  • You have the right to be treated with dignity and respect by the media at all times.

Reprinted with permission from the National Victim Center, 2111 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 300, Arlington, VA 22201.

Develop rapport with someone in radio, television, and print. If a reporter or editor takes a special interest in your story, that person can help you devise ways to get your child's story back in the spotlight. Keep a list of names, telephone and fax numbers, and personal and professional interests. Although reporters often change stations, newspapers, and cities, remember that they can take a story with them wherever they go.

Identify the assignment editors for each news organization, and send your press releases to their attention. Assignment editors are the ones who decide which events to cover and whom to assign as reporters. If you plan an event, let the news organization know what is happening by faxing a news release. Give the facts of the case, along with a news "slant."

Consider granting exclusive interviews. In the beginning, you probably will not want to grant an exclusive interview, because interest will be high and you will want the broadest coverage possible. Also, granting an exclusive interview to one news organization over another may offend the one that you leave out. Later, however, an exclusive interview may be appropriate, such as to one station that has developed a story independently or to a national media group such as ABC, CBS, CNN, or NBC. In some cases, an exclusive interview may be the only way to get a particular aspect of your story out.

Use the media to appeal for special help. The media can be a very effective tool in asking for help. If you need volunteers, training, printing, or equipment that is prohibitively expensive or not readily available, ask the media to broadcast your request. Give a wish list to local radio stations, because they in particular are often willing to publicize such appeals as a public service or interest report. Not only can this provide you with the help you need, but it can be yet another hook to remind the public to keep looking for your child.

If possible, obtain the help of a media expert. Sometimes professionals working in the field of public relations donate their services to parents. Because these professionals are very savvy in their dealings with the media, they can be a tremendous help.

Public Awareness Events

Media attention generates leads and keeps your story in front of the public. The following ideas are also excellent ways to involve volunteers in the search campaign.

  • Appear on radio and television programs to discuss your child's disappearance.

  • Hold a press conference or other media event on your child's birthday or on the anniversary of the disappearance.

  • Prepare press releases or make personal statements about the disappearance of a child in another community.

  • Prepare press releases relating to Federal, State, or local legislation.

  • Publish a letter to your child in your local newspaper.

  • Ask radio stations throughout your State to play your child's favorite song and dedicate it to your child.

  • Hold a rally at your child's school with music and prayers.

  • Ask your child's school to organize a letter writing campaign to politicians, the media, or your State legislature.

  • Organize student marches to distribute fliers or posters.

  • Develop buttons or T-shirts with your child's picture and a special message to your child.

  • Hold a prayer vigil.

  • Hold a candlelight vigil.

  • Organize a dance or a benefit auction.

  • Give a special award to the law enforcement officer who served as your primary law enforcement contact.

  • Ask sports teams in your area to include pictures of your child in their programs and to make public service announcements at all games.

  • Plant a tree or dedicate a garden in your child's name.

  • Release helium-filled balloons with your child's name and other relevant information printed on them.

  • Hold bowling tournaments.

  • Hold running, dance, or other types of marathons.

  • Ask local businesses or banks to dedicate a Christmas tree or a display of lights in honor of your child.

Previous Contents Next

OJJDP Report: When Your Child Is Missing: A Family Survival Guide, May 1998