The Media Today

The transatlantic troubles in coverage of missing people

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These were all recent front-page headlines in one British tabloid, The Sun, about Nicola Bulley, a forty-five-year-old woman who went missing while walking her dog by a river near her home in the north of England in late January. Within a few days, police had said publicly that they didn’t have any evidence of foul play in the case, but by that point, the story was already on its way to becoming a national obsession. In the weeks that followed, the coverage grew even louder. It reached a fever pitch—though by no means culminated—late last month, when Bulley’s body was recovered from the river. The massive interest in the case was the result of a “perfect storm” of factors, Karen Shalev Greene, the director of the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons at the University of Portsmouth, said—including the terrifying “relatability” of Bulley’s story, and broader recent fears in the UK about women’s safety in public places. Two London police officers have recently been jailed for rape and murder, respectively.

The latter conversation is vitally important, but in many ways, the coverage of Bulley’s disappearance offered a guided tour through the most ghoulish instincts of Britain’s media industry, with its powerful tabloids and even more widespread tabloid sensibility: at least one journalist paid at least one source for an interview; TV anchors traced Bulley’s last steps live on air; pundits offered commentary on the clothes of a female police officer. (“Skin tight navy dress, stilettos, poker straightened hair—whatever happened to a cop uniform!” a Daily Mail columnist tweeted. “Show some respect for a missing mother!”) The story also shined a light on dynamics—not least the dark side of our collective obsession with true crime and with whose disappearances get covered, and why—that will sound very familiar to followers of missing-persons coverage in the US. And it pointed, once again, to the blurred lines between journalists and influencers in our increasingly messy global information environment.

The Bulley case blew up among amateur sleuths, some of whom, including people from the US, showed up at the scene of the disappearance—scouting for supposed clues, poking around in adjacent buildings, and in one case crashing a sensitive press conference to record content for TikTok. At one point, local police issued dispersal orders so that they could forcibly move on people who were filming for social media. Meanwhile, on the internet, conspiracy theories about Bulley’s disappearance—that her friends were “crisis actors,” that her husband was complicit in her disappearance, and so on—abounded. There, too, police urged people to stop and threatened to take tougher action. “I’ve covered a few missing-persons cases before,” Robyn Vinter, a journalist who was sent wild tips by a psychic and other readers as she covered the case for The Guardian, said recently, “and I’ve never had anything like this.”

Newsquest, a large British newspaper chain owned by Gannett, emailed editorial staff urging them to use a televised press conference in the Bulley case to steer eyeballs to the chain’s true-crime YouTube channel, according to a leaked email first reported by Conquest of the Useless, a Substack devoted to media criticism. “The problem is, these cases of real pain and suffering, grief and damage get trivialized,” said Jean Murley, the author of The Rise of True Crime: 20th Century Murder and American Popular Culture. “They become just another story that generates fascination, interest, followers, and almost, in a way, fans.”

The Bulley case, Murley added, was perfectly poised to generate a high level of interest because it took place in a picturesque English village (one appeal of true crime is how it trades off the dichotomy between safety and fear) and featured a middle-class white mother as its central subject. In the US, the true-crime boom has often been linked to that of “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” a phrase coined by the late TV anchor Gwen Ifill, in 2004, to refer to the idea that attractive young white women are more likely to attract significant media attention than, for example, people of color and trans people who go missing. We wrote about the phenomenon in the context of the Gabby Petito case in the US in 2021, which itself attracted an army of social media sleuths; last year, CJR debuted a tool allowing users to see how much news coverage they are worth based on their demographic characteristics.

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Missing White Woman Syndrome has sometimes been characterized as an outgrowth of the US historical imaginary: a legacy of racist mythmaking and news coverage of the abuse of white women at the frontier and in the post–Civil War South, among other settings. But this phenomenon, too, also has more widespread underpinnings—not least a lack of diversity in newsroom staff and readership—and is thus, unsurprisingly, international in scope. Shalev Greene has seen evidence of it in coverage of missing persons in Australia and Canada as well as in the UK, where the Bulley story added to a number of other recent examples. Loved ones of disappeared people of color in the UK have spoken out repeatedly about a lack of media attention to their cases compared with those of high-profile white victims. “Why wasn’t my Black Rastafarian face on the TV doing a press conference sitting with police officers on either side?” Carol Morgan, the mother of Joy Morgan, a student who went missing in 2018 and was later found murdered, said. “It’s because I was Black and I wasn’t newsworthy.”

The families of missing persons often want to keep a media spotlight on their loved one, to help with the search. According to Vinter, of The Guardian, this seemed initially to be the case with Bulley’s family, who gave interviews and had been open to answering the queries of various journalists. In the end, though, the sheer volume of coverage in the case proved difficult for the family to handle. On the day that Bulley’s death was confirmed, the family put out a statement excoriating the media for, among other things, having “misquoted and vilified” her friends and family, “running stories about us to sell papers and increase their own profits,” and failing to respect the family’s explicit request for privacy after a body was found. On the latter charge, the family called out two TV networks, ITV and Sky, by name for directly contacting grieving family members. (Sky had interviewed the family previously.)

Following the statement, Ofcom, the body that regulates Britain’s broadcast media, said that it was “extremely concerned,” and asked ITV and Sky to explain themselves. Both networks have said that they are working to answer Ofcom’s questions. Ofcom did not respond to our request for comment; nor did the Independent Press Standards Organisation, or ipso, which regulates Britain’s print media. It’s not clear if either body has received a formal complaint from Bulley’s family. But Nicole Jacobs, the domestic abuse commissioner for England and Wales, has said that she was planning to file complaints with both regulators—and to write to the British government—about the distasteful coverage not only of Bulley, but in recent stories about the killings of Brianna Ghey, a trans teenager who was misgendered in some coverage of her death, and Emma Pattison, a British teacher who was recently shot, alongside her seven-year-old daughter. The Mail asked in a headline whether “living in the shadow of this high-achieving wife” had driven Pattison’s husband to murder her.

In the wake of Bulley’s killing, Shalev Greene says that she would like to see British lawmakers debate ways to strengthen the privacy rights of missing people and their families. Britain has had similar debates before. ipso grew out of the inquiry that followed the closure of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World newspaper, in 2011, in the wake of a massive phone-hacking scandal. The US has privacy laws, but, with its strong First Amendment, does not have a UK-style national press regulator that can respond, at least rhetorically, to violations of privacy.

Press-watchers can debate whether or not this is a good thing, and how effective regulation has been even in the British context. And other thorny questions raised by the coverage of Bulley’s disappearance—and similar stories in the US—would seem to defy easy outside regulation, on both sides of the Atlantic. Ultimately, the press must itself take primary responsibility for a difficult balance here.

Social media sleuths also defy easy regulation. They are not, after all, members of a single profession or engaged in a precisely defined activity, and they do—and should—enjoy broad free-speech rights. Ultimately, journalists can’t control the ways in which obsessive news consumers spin our coverage. But the line between their behavior and that of certain members of the media can also be hard to draw; how different, after all, is a TikTok influencer tramping through a field searching for incriminating clues in the Bulley case from a TV anchor doing roughly the same thing with a bigger camera? “There’s little you can accuse these ‘citizen journalists’ of which doesn’t hold true for many of their counterparts in traditional media,” James Greig wrote recently for Dazed, of the coverage of the Bulley case. Indeed, when Bulley’s family slammed the behavior of the media, it mentioned members of the public in the same breath.

Other notable stories:

  • Last night, on his Fox News show, Tucker Carlson started broadcasting surveillance footage from the January 6 insurrection that Kevin McCarthy, the Republican US House Speaker, recently handed to him, using it to spin a false narrative of exoneration. “After continuing to sow doubt about the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election…Carlson used the footage to portray those who broke into the US Capitol as mostly peaceful patriots who simply felt wronged by the system,” CNN’s Oliver Darcy writes. “McCarthy, of course, knew precisely what he was doing when he handed over the footage to Carlson while denying it to actual news organizations. Carlson has been one of the loudest, most obnoxious media figures denying the reality of January 6.”
  • In 2017, at the height of the #MeToo movement, the journalist Moira Donegan created a Google spreadsheet, called “Shitty Media Men,” that subsequently was used to crowdsource anonymous allegations of sexual misconduct against men working within the media industry. Donegan quickly took down the original spreadsheet, but its content had already spread online, and a year later, Stephen Elliott, an author, sued Donegan and the spreadsheet’s unnamed cocreators for defamation. A financial settlement has now been reached in the case; Jessica Testa has more details for the New York Times.
  • The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen spoke with journalists from TV Rain, an independent outlet that was ousted from Russia following that country’s invasion of Ukraine and set up shop in exile in Latvia, only to have its license revoked in the latter country after a host used language that sounded pro-Russian. Independent Russian journalists in Latvia have had to grapple with public distrust and strict regulations, Gessen reports.
  • Last year, police in the UK detained four journalists who were covering a climate protest. Now, following pressure from the country’s House of Lords, the government has pledged to amend a public-order bill to protect journalists against arrest while covering protests in the future. Officials initially said that an amendment was unnecessary because the police officers in the climate-protest case had admitted that their actions were unlawful.
  • And The Intercept’s Nick Turse recounts how US diplomats in Niger gave him the runaround after he showed up at the US embassy for a scheduled briefing that officials tried to cancel at the last minute. A State Department security official stationed at the embassy denied Turse entry, then threatened to call local law enforcement on him—even though Niger, as Turse notes, has a bad record on press freedom.

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Jon Allsop and Jem Bartholomew are the authors of this article. Jon Allsop writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Jem Bartholomew is a Reporting Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.