Guidelines for posting about missing persons
First a little background. I’ve been writing software for justice and public safety for the past few years and as part of that work have been involved in the data standards that implement the Amber Alert (among others). I’ve written emergency management systems, and interfaced with exactly the kinds of software and systems that are behind public safety alerting systems. I have a fairly deep understanding of alerting systems and the technical and human-interface issues involved.
Criteria for Alert
There are criteria for an Amber Alert. These must be met for an alert to be issued. Similarly, there should be criteria for any other kind of alert. Suggested criteria for a Silver Alert (missing elderly) also exist.
These criteria are important because they identify a level of urgency, and a rationale for alerting the public for assistance. It does not make sense to alert the public for a missing person in a wilderness area because this will only encourage people to go out into the bush, and put themselves in danger. Similarly, some missing persons are not at great risk.
Currently, the Amber Alert criteria are for a child (under 18) who is has been kidnapped and is at risk of serious injury or death. In addition, there has to be enough descriptive information about the child or abductor to issue the alert.
Post the information
The most important part of the alert is to post the information about the missing person
- Where they were last seen
- Suspected direction of travel
- Who to contact if the person is seen
- Photo (if possible)
The location is part of this important information, and believe it or not is often missed.
The most useful place to post the information is on a web site or blog. Twitter does not carry enough characters to contain relevant information, and Facebook is a closed system, and not easily indexed in case people need to search for the information.
I cannot stress this enough. Link to the definitive source.
This means if you are posting about a missing person on Facebook, Twitter or any other medium, include a link to the authority who posted the original alert. Definitive here means the lead agency, the one in charge of the investigation, and the one most likely to be informed as to the current state of the missing person.
People love to re-share these links. However, sometimes they are shared many days or even months after the event. Without a link it can be impossible to know if the person is still missing. If a link is going around about someone who is no longer missing, it detracts from a new missing person who we may need to alert on.
Another way to put this is that as the situation develops, sometimes more information comes to light. The original authority may have posted updates to their web site. In order to have access to the most up to date and accurate information, you need to read that web site.
Without a link to more information, sharing a photo or name of a missing person is futile.
Media & News
Media and news agencies are ESPECIALLY bad at the link sharing. They tend to copy the information from the original source, and not to link to the authority. Then they share a link to their own web sites in order to direct traffic there. More often than not, they do not include links to the definitive source, even on their own web site. When they update, they tend to write a new post, and leave the old post intact. This is how people get information that is wrong or out of date.
Media also post pictures and information to social media without any links at all, which makes no sense.
Keep in mind when posting about missing people that the goal is to find the missing person. The media’s goal is to make money. Don’t repost a link to a media web site, repost a link to the police, SAR, or other agency with the most complete information available.
Don’t share links for a missing person in Ontario if you are in BC. These alerts are regional in nature. Unless there is information specifically posted to indicate the person may be travelling to BC, there is no reason to post it in BC. A missing person in BC should always be a higher priority for that region.
Relevance is largely geographic for missing people. It is most important to alert the people closest to where the person went missing. Hence, it is not enough to say “Vancouver” — you have to have an intersection.
By keeping alerts relevant, people who can assist are more likely to pay attention. This can make a difference.
I mention posting a location. Never post a home address if you can help it. Don’t post pictures of drivers licences, or crop out addresses and numbers. Don’t post phone numbers of private individuals. The police have the power to post private information if they feel that the release is warranted to preserve the person’s life or safety. Anyone else offering up this information can be in trouble.
Cancelling an alert is a kind of update. Getting the information out that someone has been found is important because it means people can stop looking, and stop sharing links that the person is lost. If you’ve been careful to only share links to authoritative sources, then
- The goal is to alert people who could assist finding the missing person
- Re-post links to authoritative sources
- Update posts with new information including cancelled alert
- Keep re-posts relevant and geographically appropriate
- stop posting when alert no longer necessary
In conclusion, it may seem that these are obvious or nit-picky points, but as someone who has both written software to support alerting systems, and been part of the organization to use an alerting system, I feel the deficiencies very strongly. When an alert goes out, someone’s life is at stake. Taking care to follow a few simple guidelines can actually make the difference here.