I bet everyone has heard of Madelyn McCann. Her sweet little face once sold millions of newspapers, prompted millions of website clicks, and earned newscasters a few more minutes of viewers' attention on networks around the world.
But who had ever heard of Alisa Dmitrijeva, until her body turned up on the Queen's estate in Norfolk?
I hadn't either, since her disappearance in August failed to stir the media's attention. She was seventeen and bears a striking resemblance to little Madelyn McCann. So it evidently wasn't a lack of photogenic qualities that caused her disappearance to fail to make worldwide headlines—as is often the case with the thousands of missing children and adults.
About a year ago Joanna Yeates went missing right before Christmas. We all heard about this young woman, perhaps because her family was so adept at getting the word out, or perhaps the local authorities did a better job getting her photograph out. And the media attention didn't drop off after her body was found by walkers on Christmas day, either. We all watched, riveted to the news, as first her boyfriend and then her landlord were suspected of her murder and later exonerated. Recently a neighbor was convicted of her murder, in a trail we all heard about on the evening news.
There's no doubt we'll be hearing more about Alisa, a Latvian student who'd been living in Norfolk. The details of her murder, if that's what it was, will be retold while we're preparing dinner. Her picture will become familiar, and we'll be reminded to hold our loved ones close. But when one of our loved ones disappears, only a "lucky" few of them will find the media is prepared to devote non-stop coverage to finding their body—unless it turns up on the estate of royalty.
I don't have a clue what algorithm results in vast media coverage for one missing person, while thousands of others go unnoticed. Do the public care more about a missing four-year old than a missing seventeen-year old? Or a missing blonde girl than a missing black boy? Hopefully not. Yet every day over six hundred people go missing in the UK (two thirds are adults who voluntarily leave). It's impossible for the capital-centric UK media to devote front page coverage to all of them—perhaps the advent of local television coverage will help correct some of the geographical disparity of media attention.
Yet the United States, with a vast network of local media, is even worse. A small percentage of missing persons cases make headlines there—"missing blonde girl syndrome" is well known, even when the blonde girl goes missing in Aruba. There are whole "news" programs that detail the courtroom proceedings of high profile crime cases. News has become entertainment; a mention of Casey Anthony is guaranteed to get more viewers to tune in than a live appearance by Angelina Jolie.
What about the 99% of missing persons whose photos never make the front page of a website, whose names aren't as well known as Beyonce's baby, whose families will never worry about a media scrum outside their front door? Their lives are lived and lost in quiet anonymity—not such a good thing when the first hours are crucial in finding a missing person.
Would people care less about the Madelyn McCanns of the world if they realized there were missing toddlers in their own vicinity? Would we care less about Joanna Yeates if we knew there have been thousands of missing young women over the years?
I suspect we would. There are only so many trending topics on Twitter we can absorb.