Holly Bobo and Politics of Missing Persons

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Holly Bobo/DCI

Holly Bobo, a young nursing student from Tennessee, was apparently abducted April 13, last seen being led into the woods near her home by a camouflaged individual.

It’s been over three months and despite national media coverage, extensive police searches, and mountains of wrong information provided by dozens of psychics, neither Bobo nor her abductor have been found. The reward for information about Bobo has now reached $85,000, which includes $50,000 of public money offered by Tennessee governor Bill Haslam.

The police investigation remains open, though the search for Bobo has taken a new turn with a campaign called "Holly Bobo Across America," in which 10,000 long-distance trucks will be outfitted with 2-foot by 3-foot photographic decals of Bobo's face.

A smaller version window decal will be created for passenger vehicles. Steve Hinson, an organizer of the effort, said he hoped that someone would recognize Bobo as the trucks cross the country.

"All it takes is just one person at one place to see the truck decal and make a phone call," Hinson said.

The fact that Bobo's profile remains high so long after her disappearance is a testament to the family's media efforts. Time is the enemy of families in missing persons cases; as time goes on, the likelihood of the person being safely returned drops dramatically. As each day and week passes, leads tend to dry up and perhaps more importantly the media loses interest as new stories crowd out the old.

The parents of missing children (and adults) have used many tactics to keep their family members' disappearances in the news. Perhaps the most dramatic example was when a Washington, D.C., intern named Chandra Levy went missing in 2001. Levy's parents knew that she had been having an affair with a high-profile politician, Rep. Gary Condit, and repeatedly used that information to keep the case in the press.

In that case, however, the Levys' public relations tactic backfired, since much of the public's attention was focused on a political sex scandal instead of finding the real murderer, an immigrant from El Salvador named Ingmar Guandique.

There's another, lesser-discussed reason why the search for Holly Bobo remains in the public eye: she's a young, attractive blonde woman. The fact that Bobo has a rich and famous cousin — country music star Whitney Duncan — to help remind people about her doesn't hurt; Duncan described Holly as "beautiful, she is sweet, she is a good Christian girl."

I researched this phenomenon for my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, and discussed how the news media has an unwritten (and perhaps unconscious) hierarchy of importance based on factors including race, age, gender, and beauty.

Young, beautiful, Caucasian females who go missing top the list and often get weeks of national news coverage; middle-aged, plain, ethnic men who go missing may not even warrant a few sentences in the local newspaper.

All of America saw the adorable photo of doe-eye, chubby-cheeked Caylee Anthony, who went missing in 2008; it seems unlikely the case would have gotten as much attention (or public would have cared so much) if Caylee had been a plain-looking Black toddler.

Dozens of people go missing each week across the country; some are later found murdered, others are abductions or runaways. But not all missing persons are treated equally. Call it racism, call it sexism, call it ageism, or media bias, or whatever you like, but this pattern occurs over and over in high-profile missing persons cases.

Certainly no one begrudges the Bobo family for their success in keeping their daughter's case in the public eye. But it's a fair question to ask why the Tennessee governor chose to offer $50,000 for information about Bobo, but not for the countless other lower-profile missing persons in his state.

In fact, there are several other women who disappeared around the same time and in the same general area where Bobo was last seen, and Gov. Haslam has not offered a similar amount for their return. Holly Bobo deserves all the media attention that her family can generate, and hopefully their efforts will pay off.

But there are thousands of families of other missing persons whose disappearances are no less deserving of media attention, perhaps wondering when their governor will offer a $50,000 reward. All men (and women) may be created equal; but if you disappear, you better hope you’re young, White, female, and cute, or the media may not care.

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