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Media message unfair to missing child

I was relieved to hear that the missing 12-year-old Baltimore County girl was found and returned to her worried parents. Yet I still remain perplexed at the way her disappearance was reported. Seemingly in the same breath that news outlets reported that the child was missing, they also reported that she had a history of engaging with men online. Like parrots, broadcasters repeated this information that reportedly came from police, who claimed it could lead to her whereabouts. The question is why?

One of the first things students of communication learn is that meanings are in people, the interpretations of individuals, and that messages are often accompanied by noise — external or psychological, for example. Needless to say the emphasis on the girl's social media use created psychological noise for me, and I hope I am not the only one. Was this noise supposed to shift the meaning of the message that a 12-year-old girl was missing, and probably in danger, to perhaps this is no big deal? Don't worry too much about her disappearance, she is most likely with friends, or worse, with one of the men with whom she engages on social media. All noise.

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While she was missing, media repeatedly used her name and referred to these past online communications with men. Now that she's home, and her alleged kidnapper has been charged with abduction and rape, reporters are suddenly concerned with protecting her innocence. They no longer use her name, citing policies of not identifying victims of alleged sexual crimes, even though there was reason for concern that she could be a victim of such a crime while missing.

The media also reported that the child had never gone missing in the past. Yet it was difficult to hear this fact in the message being shared.

Can we really afford to have our perceptions clouded when a child disappears? Statistics from the Maryland State Police indicate that the majority of missing children are girls between the ages of 12 and 17 years old. Furthermore, when they are abducted, usually by a non-family member, they are typically killed within the first three hours. Could we really afford the "noise" in this girl's story? Broadcaster Melissa Harris-Perry might refer to this type of noisy message as a weapon of mass — or in this case, mass media — distraction. All to what end? Is the information another example of blaming the victim? Is the information supposed to shame the family? Is this 12 year old the only child to use social media in a childish and dangerous fashion? Are we supposed to reduce the intensity of the search and wag a sanctimonious finger at her and her parents? Exactly what were we, the audience, supposed to do with that titillating morsel of information?

With roughly 13,500 children, mostly girls, reported missing every year, and 1,500 of them unaccounted for, we don't need that kind of noise when the priority should be finding our children. We as a society need to re-think the ways in which we represent our children. We must be less cavalier in the ways we formulate our messages about them. Shame and blame have no place in the search for a child. We need to move beyond our outdated and outlandish defaults, especially with regard to our perceptions and representations of girls and women. Equality has to do as much with real and news reel representations of females as it does with equal pay for equal work, and equal access to education and career choices. The Baltimore County girl was found, but each year just over a thousand children are not, according to Maryland State Police statistics. These children, most of them girls, are somebody's daughter, sister and/or friend. Our goals should be to protect them, and to search for and find them when they are lost, not to judge them. There is no room for shaming and blaming. What this girl deserved was our compassion and concern. When a child goes missing, let the focus be on finding that child. Everything else is noise.

Heather E. Harris is an associate professor in the Department of Business Communication at Stevenson University. She can be reached at hharris@stevenson.edu.

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