Missing Person Reports

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

One of the most common stories a reporter encounters is the missing person report.

Though it appears simple, such reports are fraught with peril. Relatives are distraught, urging reporters and police to act fast so the public can help search for a loved one. Journalists sometimes are accused of dragging their feet with the passage of time, or accused of bias for reporting some missing cases and not others.

These cases can become highly emotional, and seen as a matter of survival for the missing person.

Missing person defined

A missing person is defined as a person who has disappeared and whose status as alive or dead cannot be confirmed.

More than 600,000 people go missing in the U.S. every year, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons database. That’s about 1,600 every day. Another 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered every year. Just trying to decide which of these cases to cover is part of a reporter’s dilemma. There are so many of them.

The United States has what may be the world’s highest number of missing persons. By far the most common reason a person is reported missing is kidnapping, particularly of children under the age of six. The vast majority of missing persons cases are resolved.

Managing editor calls

AdviceLine got involved in such a case when the managing editor of a New York State daily newspaper called for ethics guidance.

A 23-year-old woman was last seen in a hotel, but family members lost contact with her over the weekend and considered her missing. Her father posted information about her disappearance on his Facebook page. A reporter interviewed him.

“He told us that she had been on anxiety medications,” said the managing editor, “and had exhibited bizarre behavior during a Skype phone call.” The father also said he spoke with his daughter’s best friend, who said the missing woman was off her medications.

Some reservations

“We had some reservations about publishing all this information about her, but we went ahead and published it anyway,” said the managing editor. The missing woman was found a few hours after the print edition hit the street.

This is usually the reason editors hesitate to go to print too soon with missing person reports. As luck would have it, the missing person turns up shortly after her name appears in print. Complications ensue.

“Subsequently,” said the managing editor, “we received a phone call from the young woman’s best friend, in which she claimed she had communicated with her friend’s father in confidence, and would not have spoken so freely had she known that her statements would find their way into print.” 

Second thoughts

She said her friend, the formerly missing young woman, would be greatly upset to see such private information about herself made public, and that it might do her some harm. The caller asked the managing editor to redact the online story to remove references to the missing woman’s medical condition and what the friend had told the woman’s father.

The managing editor asked AdviceLine: “Do we let the record stand? Or do we redact the online story in some way?”

In his written report on the case, Hugh Miller, the AdviceLine advisor, wrote: “We spoke at some length about the conflict between refusal to alter an already-published story and the ‘minimize harm’ issues raised by the case. The most troubling bit had to do with the communication of the woman’s best friend to her father being made public. But the whole question of her privacy, particularly regarding sensitive personal medical information, was an important one.

Private individual

“She is a private individual, with a greater presumptive right to privacy and consideration of that privacy from journalists. Future employers doing an internet search for her name, for example, might come up with the story in its unedited form, and it might raise unnecessary red flags for her.

“The issue is: Does she have a particularly strong case for special consideration here? Would the public be harmed if the information about her medical condition were to be deleted? Did it really need to know that information at the time the story was first issued? We did not come to a decisive conclusion.”

The managing editor was left to make up his mind. “But our conversation served to highlight the ‘minimize harm’ issues in the case,” wrote Miller.

What would you do, if you were the managing editor? What is the least damaging way to handle this case, the least damaging to the formerly missing woman and the least damaging to the newspaper’s reputation?


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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