Laurie Perks, York Regional Police media spokesperson, raises her voice above the drone of circling helicopters so the reporters can hear her. The scene outside Alicia Ross’s family home on August 18, 2005, is chaotic. Police have blocked the street to traffic; photographers and TV crews cluster around the mobile command centre outside the distinguished, brown-brick house; and relatives, friends and neighbours flood the multi-car driveway. Perks reveals that the missing 25-year-old left her purse and keys inside the house when she vanished. It isn’t much, but the reporters in the crush around her scramble to jot down the newest tidbit.
After the briefing, National Post crime reporter Nicholas Kohler (who is now with Maclean’s) begs Ross’s friends to talk about her, to give him something new to write, something no other paper has. “No comment,” a guy shouts back.
No matter. The next morning, the Post – along with the Toronto Sun – features Ross on the front page. She becomes province-wide news with articles in papers such as the Ottawa Citizen, The Hamilton Spectator andThe Peterborough Examiner. The following day, the media frenzy goes national with a headshot of the effervescent blonde plastered on the pages of over twenty dailies including the Edmonton Journal, The Daily News in Kamloops and the Cape Breton Post.
Not all missing persons, however, become celebrities. For every Alicia Ross there is a Misha Kleider, a 24-year-old from Vancouver who didn’t make it beyond a police news release. In fact, the list of missing and unreported people goes on and on with cases such as Ayesha Hussein, 18. Only a handful of the thousands of Canadians who disappear each year make the front page – and the ones who do are typically young women (frequently white, often attractive) from good families and nice neighbourhoods. But while socio-economic and racial factors can play a role, the drive to match – and, ideally, beat – the competition usually determines the amount of coverage a case will get.
When I was 13, I moved with my family into a house two blocks from Ross’s home. I began Grade 9 at Thornlea Secondary Schooll just after she graduated. Her name was probably scribbled amongst the many others on the cabin walls at Camp White Pine: “Alicia Ross wuz here.” Even though we never met, we had much in common. If I went missing, I’d likely be described as bubbly, ambitious and responsible. We’ve both taken kick-boxing classes and travelled – she to Australia, I to Europe and Israel. Although I can’t single-handedly portage a canoe through thick Algonquin Park bush, we both listened to The Beatles on our iPods and loved our dogs. That’s what makes stories about missing persons tick – they’re relatable. It could have been me.
If I went missing, I would probably make headlines because I fit the profile: young, white and middle-class. There are two kinds of stories. The first are conventional ones about politics and policies, money and power. A Stephen Harper speech, for example, fulfills journalism’s traditional definition of newsworthy material. The second are relatable and sensational stories about murders and missing people. David Estok, an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Western Ontario (UWO), explains that within missing persons coverage there are two types of stories. The first, he says, is about well-known people, and these stories get lots of media coverage. The second is about the coverage of unknowns. “If the person is found, either dead or alive, it is a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and there will be lots of coverage,” says Estok. “If the person is not found, the coverage dies down because the media get bored and they assume their readers are bored.”
These stories start when police get a report that someone is missing and alert media outlets with a press release. York Regional Police send the release by fax or email to more than a hundred media outlets, most of them in the Greater Toronto Area. In some regions, including Toronto, police offer an Internet subscription service. Along with 1,124 other subscribers at the time, I received as many as five or six releases a day.
The media’s urge to sensationalize some of these stories certainly isn’t new, but it does go in cycles. The current wave started in the early 1990s with the horrific case of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. When Leslie Mahaffy disappeared in June 1991, police assumed the 14-year-old had run away as she had earlier that year. The media published no reports until police found her dismembered body encased in concrete in a lake two weeks later. But when Kristen French was abducted in April 1992, police connected the cases, and the 15-year-old quickly became front-page news.
Since then, coverage has swelled. Not coincidentally, so has the competition, especially after the arrival of the Post sparked a newspaper war. In 2003, Holly Jones disappeared from her Parkdale neighbourhood in Toronto after walking a friend home. Even after the 10-year-old’s body parts were found in two bags off Toronto Island, the media searched for new angles, including her murderer’s pornography addiction. Later that year, someone snatched Cecilia Zhang from her North York bedroom, and media outlets across the country fixated on her story until police identified her remains in a wooded ravine more than five months later. Canadian newspapers have published more than 1,500 articles about the 9-year-old, and she’s often cited as background in stories about new cases. Still, this pales in comparison to U.S. media reaction to such cases. Elizabeth Smart, for example, a 14-year-old abducted from her Salt Lake City bedroom, became a tabloid favourite during the nine months she was held captive. Publications invented all kinds of theories – including that she had been abducted by aliens. The National Enquirer even speculated her family was involved in a gay sex ring.
Gregory Boyd Bell, The Globe and Mail‘s Toronto editor, asks himself three basic questions when deciding whether to cover a lead: Is it a good story? Is it an important story? Does my reader need to know this? With Ross, it was a no-brainer – yes, yes and yes. “People who live in nice neighbourhoods and in nice homes don’t just go missing overnight,” he says. “It was readily apparent, immediately, that this was not going to have a happy ending.”
The truth is that most cases do have happy endings. The Canadian Association of Police Boards claims that ninety per cent of missing people surface within two weeks. And editors naturally want to avoid false alarms. Dailies, bound by a twenty-four-hour cycle, face challenges broadcasters don’t. “Here’s the problem,” saysToronto Star crime reporter Bob Mitchell. “When people go missing at ten in the morning, we don’t know whether they’re going to be found before the paper hits the stands.”
Mitchell uses the same criteria as Boyd Bell to evaluate the releases he sees. When he calls police to learn more, the first questions he asks are: Is this a runaway? Or is there something more to this? He then consults his editors, who usually decide to wait until day two to run the story, in case the person surfaces.
Few news outlets hesitated on Ross. “With Alicia we were inundated with media calls daily,” says Kim Killby, who was a corporate communications officer with York Regional Police during the case. “This is the opposite of most cases. Usually, I have to call the media and beg them to air a story. We consider ourselves lucky if we see it on the local Rogers cable station.” Still, police usually put out press releases just in case something terrible has happened. Unfortunately, the press releases don’t always receive enough attention. When Rene Charlebois went missing in December 2003, everyone assumed that the quiet 15-year-old had run away after Peel Regional Police received reports that he’d been spotted. Nonetheless, they issued a press release asking the public for help within a week of his disappearance. The media ignored it.
After speaking to the boy’s mother, Mitchell was sure Charlebois hadn’t run away, but he couldn’t convince his uninterested editors. The story sat on his desk until March, when Charlebois’s dismembered body turned up in a public landfill site. Even then, it wasn’t a big story until the next month, when police tied a convicted pedophile named Douglas Donald Moore – who committed suicide in his jail cell – to the case. “Rene Charlebois,” says Mitchell, “is a thorn in my side.”
In August 2005, Aziz Fatima Nizam Ahman grabs her purse around 1 P.M. and tells her mother she’s heading to the Canadian Forces Base Borden, where she used to work. The 18-year-old never arrives. A Star brief announcing her disappearance includes a photo of the brown-skinned, full-lipped Ahman clad in her high school graduation cap and gown. The same photo runs in the Sun. I email Colin MacKenzie, the Globe‘s managing editor, to ask why his paper is ignoring Ahman. “She was reported missing in a 9:11 P.M. police news release on August 25,” he responds. “We didn’t run anything because by the time we looked at it the next morning, she had phoned her parents to say she was fine.” The Star drops the story without alerting readers she had been found, and I accidentally skip over the Sun‘s brief bearing the miniscule headline: “Woman Found.” For weeks I think she is missing and neglected by the media, perhaps because she is an immigrant from a struggling neighbourhood.
In September, I sit on the subway flipping through the East York Mirror when I see a photo of a black girl with piercing brown eyes and the headline “Public’s Help Sought.” Alisha Nollmeyer, 12, was last seen four days ago at 7 A.M. She is five-foot-seven, 115 pounds, with straight, shoulder-length hair in a ponytail and a thin build. That’s it. I flip the pages searching for more. Nothing. “Why no Amber Alert?” I say out loud in the crowded subway car. At my stop, I rush to the newsstand to grab the Sun, the Globe and the Post. I comb the pages. Nothing. I mention it to my mom. “Do you think it’s because she’s black?” she asks. “It’s because she’s black,” smirks a friend. Mistrust of the media is widespread, but, in this case, unwarranted, because Nollmeyer is a repeat runaway who turns up safe days later.
Not surprisingly, reporters and editors deny race is a factor. “Whether they’re black, Chinese, it doesn’t matter,” says Mitchell. “It’s about the circumstances.” Those circumstances include the location (rural areas get neglected while the media spotlight shines on urban centres) and police tactics (extensive searches and press conferences mean big news). “It also depends what other news is happening in the world,” says Boyd Bell. The Ross obsession, for example, faded during hurricane Katrina.
Stephen J. A. Ward, associate professor of journalism ethics at the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism, says gender, age and socio-economic status do in fact influence coverage. As Paul C. Whitehead, a UWO sociology professor says, “There is a lot of interest in middle-class people as opposed to working-class people. It’s more interesting than when a poor 16-year-old black kid goes missing.” It’s no surprise that newspapers choose to cover people who are most like their predominantly middle-class readers, but that can mean missing some big stories. When sixty-one women vanished from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood over two decades, they received little coverage until police found evidence of the murders, leading them to charge pig farmer Robert Pickton with twenty-seven first-degree murders. “If these women were wives of white, middle-class men instead of aboriginal prostitutes, they would have gotten much more attention off the bat,” says Ward. “This is systemic racism and classism growing from social attitudes towards the homeless and powerless.” He suggests editors think about why they are or aren’t writing about a particular person. “It cannot be totally equal, but the disparities can be evened out.” And while he doesn’t believe editors are racist, “It is important to remember that racism can be unconscious.”
Star columnist Linda Diebel sees no race bias in her own work and points out that she’s worked on cases involving many different races. But, she says, “You can only be responsible for the work you do yourself.”
On the day reporters first gather outside Alicia Ross’s home, Kohler hears that reporters have been calling Ross’s office line, hoping to speak to one of her colleagues. They’re disappointed when they get her voicemail from her last day at work: “Hi, it’s Alicia Ross on Tuesday, August 16. I am in the office today but I can’t take your call…” Four days later, Kohler is determined to speak to Ross’s parents, Sharon and Julius Fortis.
“Hi, this is Nicholas Kohler from the National Post…”
A Fortis family friend says that neither parent can take the call. The reporter pushes, asking if anyone there read his article about her love of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and her Brady Bunch? like family. Minutes later, a man comes on.
“Hello. This is Julius Fortis…”
They chat for a while before Fortis opens up. “Alicia’s always been my Pooky,” he says. “I don’t know why…it’s just a name. Pooky. I call her Pooky. That’s all.”
Kohler jumps on the Pooky angle. With no new leads in the case, that is as good as it gets. “Pooky Didn’t Leave on Own: Stepdad” is plastered across the front page the next morning. As the only one with a new angle – even if it was just a nickname – the Post trumps the competition.
Ironically, Kohler skipped the first police release about Ross. It’s not uncommon to get ideas from other media. Sun crime reporter Rob Lamberti admits, “It’s no secret that we sometimes do what other media do.” Still, the rivalry on these stories is fierce, and reporters feel the pressure from their editors to get something the other guys don’t have. On August 28, 2005, the Star won the day with a front page that looked like the Ross family’s photo album. Snapshots captured Alicia as a toddler driving her toy car, riding a merry-go-round, swimming with dolphins, in a school portrait and blowing out the candles on her twenty-fifth birthday cake.
It may have been overkill, but everyone noticed. “If you can beat the other person, go for it,” says Sunreporter Jack Boland. “The problem is there is too much saturation of media. There are way more papers than there used to be, and press conferences are packed.” The problem is, competition breeds repetition. “There is the sense that you have multiple occurrences happening,” says Whitehead, “when in fact it’s the same one being repeated over and over again with only a slight bit more information.”
And repetition breeds fear. There has not been another case like Ross’s in my neighbourhood during my lifetime, but crime is a major issue for urbanites, and the media hype it recklessly. To counter the fear, Ward suggests the media teach parents how to do a reference check on babysitters and street-proof their kids. “Journalists,” he says, “need to take a less sensational approach, tell the whole story, including what people can do.”
After four months of research for this article, I finally muster the courage to call Sharon Fortis. My hand shakes as I dial the number. I’m terrified she’ll hang up on me, but instead, after my stuttering plea, she pauses before putting me at ease.
“Well,” she says. “I’d love to help you out, but I’m just on the other line. Are you at home? I can call you right back.”
Within thirty minutes I understand for the first time how the news desensitizes us. It doesn’t matter that I’ve read every article, stared at every photo and know every detail. When I hear Fortis’s voice crack, I begin to see Alicia as human and not a creature conjured by the media. Through tears she speaks about reporters who followed her as she walked her dogs. As I fight to hold back my own tears, I want to reach through the phone and hug her, to comfort her the same way I might my own mom – the way I’m sure Alicia would want her to be comforted.
Instead, she takes me back to six days after Alicia disappeared. “I believed she was alive and I needed to get a message to my daughter,” says Fortis. “Perhaps she could see or hear me. I knew I had to bring the issue to the forefront.” Although a total novice with media, she realized she needed help to find her daughter. The day before, she’d made a plea during a press conference. “I will never, ever give up. You will come home, Alicia. You’re going to come home, safe and sound.” When a friend of the Globe‘s Christie Blatchford approached Fortis about giving an interview, Fortis gave it some thought. The petite blonde decided to give her first one-on-one interview, based also in part on Blatchford’s reputation for the way she’s handled these kinds of tragedies in the past. The story ran on the front page under the headline: “Big Family is Missing One of Its Jewels.”
After that, Fortis sifted through the business cards on her kitchen table and took media calls. She began welcoming strangers with cameras and tape recorders into her home, sharing photos and anecdotes. She and her husband described a mischievous little girl who grew into a soft-spoken adventurer who jogged with her sister, ponytail swinging side to side. They cherished a compassionate Alicia who visited her high school sweetheart’s mother after he was killed in a car accident. Later, they tried to think of anything new to keep the story alive.
The Fortises may have only known it instinctively, but while class and race do play a part, an even greater factor in the amount of play a case gets is the willingness of the family to feed the media’s hunger for narrative details. “Coverage depends on how much cooperation there is from the family,” says the Star‘s Mitchell. “Families need to reach out. The more publicity they can get, the better chance they have of finding their child.”
If that sounds like a self-serving attitude, Mitchell can be forgiven. After all, covering missing people is far from the most pleasant assignment for a reporter. But not everyone agrees with him. Blatchford, for instance, thinks the family’s involvement makes the reporter’s job even trickier. “It’s not easy talking to people who are in shock and grieving and frantic with fear,” she says. “If I went missing as a little girl, my dad probably would have been out there with a fucking shotgun telling the media to get away. People don’t always know where to draw the line. It’s easy for people to forget I’m not their friend. The line drawing has to be done by me.”
But Sharon Fortis seemed to know what the media could do for her, and she was willing to accommodate them for the sake of her daughter. “We kept pushing until this monster came forward.” For the public, the story became all the more relatable when the monster turned out to be the 31-yearold next-door neighbour, Daniel Sylvester. He confessed to the abduction and murder of Ross, leading police northeast of Toronto to where he dumped her remains in two separate locations. On September 21, 2005, photos of a bushy-browed Sylvester sporting a Gap T-shirt and empty expression on his face dominated the front pages. Newspapers scurried to outdo their competitors. After all, the only story bigger than a missing woman is a dead one.