The Case of Murdered Serbian Girl Exposes Failures of the Media System. Again.

Maida Salkanovic/ DALL·E

By: Maida Salkanović

In the wake of the harrowing disappearance and tragic fate of a two-year-old girl in Bor, Serbia, the media’s handling of the case has sparked outrage and raised profound questions about journalistic ethics and accountability.

On March 26, 2024, authorities announced that a two-year-old girl from Bor, Serbia, was missing. Media across the region extensively covered the case, publishing the photo and details of the girl, D.I., in hopes of locating her. Serbia’s version of the Amber Alert system, named “Find Me,” was activated, broadcasting alerts through phones, the internet, television, and other mass media to aid in the search.

On April 4, after an intense eight-day search accompanied by substantial media coverage, officials reported that the girl had been the victim of a hit-and-run accident. The perpetrators, they revealed, had taken her body and disposed of it in a nearby dump.

All developments in the case were intensely covered, but in addition to useful information, the media also included details irrelevant to the investigation, turning the situation into a media spectacle and violating the Journalist Code of Ethics. The media circulated a significant amount of disinformation, ranging from incorrect claims that the girl was found alive to false reports about data allegedly found on the mother’s phone.

Tabloids speculated that the mother had searched for the nearest border exit to Romania right before the girl’s disappearance, as well as the punitive measures for certain crimes, implying her guilt in trafficking. From the beginning, the media scrutinized the parents’ involvement in the girl’s disappearance, with particular emphasis on the mother. They questioned her mannerisms and her apparent lack of emotion, why she took the children to play in an uninhabited house, and even made outright accusations of her involvement in trafficking the child.

Jovana Jeremić, a popular morning show host on the Serbian Pink TV channel, publicly stated that the parents knew the whereabouts of the child. Another journalist on Serbian Informer TV commented that the mother had only a few photos of the missing girl on her social media, primarily posting about her male child. Additionally, an interviewed “expert” on Happy TV speculated whether the mother had reported the disappearance too late. Jeremić also described the mother as “cold-blooded.” The media manipulated a statement from the girl’s great grandfather, selectively publishing his remark that he was unsure if the girl’s mother was a good mother.

Tamara Skrozza, a member of the Serbian Press Council, in an interview with N1, attributed the media’s focus on blaming the mother to the “deeply patriarchal society in which all values have depreciated in recent years.” She emphasized, “The witch hunt against the mother has not stopped even now. She is blamed for letting her child wander off. From day one, the mother has been portrayed as the culprit,” she told N1.

This misogynistic narrative was sometimes intertwined with a nationalist one, leading to claims that foreign nationals were involved in the girl’s disappearance. For instance, an obscure media outlet from Bosnia-Herzegovina alleged that the mother “sold the girl to Bulgarians,” and a widely circulated claim suggested that the girl was trafficked to Austria by two Romanian women. The latter allegation was investigated by the police, and the media also misinterpreted statements from the Austrian police, erroneously reporting that a video supposedly showing the girl in Vienna had definitively identified her.

A Breach of Media Ethics

Media experts agree that ethical standards are often lacking in regional media coverage of tragedies, as evidenced by their reporting on femicides and two mass murders in Serbia the previous year. However, some believe that in this case, ethical boundaries were not merely crossed—they were obliterated.

Marko Nedeljković, Assistant Professor of Media and Communications at the Faculty for Political Science of the University of Belgrade, told SEE Check that the type of reporting observed in this case is not surprising since it reflects everyday media practices. Nonetheless, he expressed concern that even in the face of the most challenging and sensitive tragedies, the media continue to behave in the same manner.

“They have pushed the boundaries because, for example, we are used to speculations, guesses, and baseless constructions when it comes to conflicts of certain criminal groups and the like, but now we see that the media do not even hesitate to accuse a mother and father of the disappearance of a child, even though they did not have a single piece of evidence for that. This is yet another step further in violating all ethical, professional, and even human principles, and that is what is additionally worrying because the boundaries are shifting year by year,” he said. 

Additionally, the blame was incorrectly placed on a random man from the Bor area when the media published his photo and name, claiming he was one of the suspects. The real-life consequences of such irresponsible reporting could be immense, particularly during a time of intense public outrage about the case.

However, consequences for the media are almost nonexistent. The Serbian Press Council currently has a dozen complaints lodged against media outlets for their reporting on this case. This self-regulatory body, however, lacks the power to enforce punitive measures. Media organizations that are members of the Council and violate the Code of Ethics are obliged to publish the Council’s decisions in their outlets. Nonetheless, as evident from previous cases of reporting on tragedies where the media displayed equally reprehensible behavior, they often ignore or disregard the Press Council’s decisions. The Press Council has called on the media to report ethically on this case, a plea that was joined by Mihailo Jovanović, the Minister of Information and Telecommunications in Serbia at the time.

“It is important that in these difficult moments, care is taken regarding the dignity of the victim and their families, and that any speculation or unverified information is avoided. We urge the media to refrain from a sensationalist approach that can further disturb the public and violate the privacy of the victim’s family. In such situations, it is essential that the public is informed accurately and with compassion,“ said Jovanović.

However, according to Nerma Šehović, author of an analysis on this case published on the Bosnian Raskrinkavanje website, the media prioritized profits over a professional and responsible approach to reporting. “Hunting for clicks, online news outlets have tried to dig up as much content as possible related to this case, which resulted in the publication of a series of speculations, rumors, and unverified information about the disappearance and murder of the two-year-old girl. Ultimately, such media reporting has contributed to spreading confusion and disinformation, as well as further disturbing the public,” she told SEE Check.

Marija Vučić, author of a similar analysis for Serbian Raskrikavanje, agrees. She observes that media reporting in this case mirrored the coverage of other tragedies—media outlets that generally uphold ethical standards reported decently, while those that do not, failed to do so.

“I wouldn’t say these are ‘oversights’ in reporting that just ‘happened’; it’s about a very deliberate and regular editorial policy for which the editors and journalists of tabloids are responsible, and whose goal is to attract clicks, sell newspapers, and increase viewership. The larger the audience, the greater the earnings, and if profit is our ultimate goal, not ethics, then we won’t be too burdened by the code of conduct,” she remarked.

Some of the media outlets which displayed the most unprofessional reporting are the pro-regime tabloids. Marko Nedeljković contends that the media coverage of this case vividly illustrates a distressing reality: that media outlets operate with a disturbing awareness that anything is permissible as long as they maintain political compliance. He further suggests that decision-makers share this mindset.

“It’s the most unprofessional media outlets that receive rewards from state and local authorities in the form of various financial contributions from the budget. This sends a clear message that political alignment is the paramount criterion. As long as we continue to witness a scenario where the media serve as political instruments and where the majority of media neglect citizens, public interest, and journalistic integrity as values worth upholding, meaningful change will remain elusive,” Nedeljković concluded.

An analysis by Raskrikavanje revealed that in 2023, six pro-regime news outlets received at least 1.3 million Euros from the budget. This occurred despite Raskrikavanje recording at least 1,154 instances of manipulation on their front pages. It appears that the media exhibiting the most consistent breaches of ethics, disseminating disinformation, and engaging in unprofessional reporting are the pro-regime outlets, which serve the ruling party and help keep them in power. The citizens of Serbia bear the cost, both in terms of the budget funds allocated and the psychological damage inflicted by such reporting.

The Role of the Audience

Media audiences are also part of the equation, as they continue to engage with sensationalist articles about tragedies. Jovana Šesterikov, a member of the journalist network Journalists Against Violence Against Women, initiated a campaign targeting media consumers, urging them not to click on problematic content. The campaign, named “Don’t Click,” featured videos that were viewed over 80,000 times on Šesterikov’s profile and were shared across social media by various organizations, as well as broadcast on television.

“Based on my experience working in online editorial teams and the media’s reaction to last year’s murders in Ribnikar, Malo Orašje, and Dubona, I expected complete media hysteria. I must emphasize that during the search for the girl, the media’s reporting crossed the boundaries of professional reporting. However, on the day we learned that she was, unfortunately, killed, even the few existing boundaries were demolished. Since I have no influence over what the media publish, I devised a campaign that addresses the readers directly, clearly, and concisely to inform them of the harm caused by clicking and sharing such content,” she told SEE Check.

She noted that in Serbia, as well as in other countries, online editors and journalists are willing to compromise ethical standards for clicks, justifying their actions by citing public interest, while neglecting the educational role of the press.

“Part of this stems from the insane pressure for every published news story to be widely read, part is due to the speed and copying and pasting of content from competing platforms, and of course, there is also ignorance. It’s clear that these clicks pay the salaries, but there must be clear boundaries on what is acceptable and how far one can go with ‘going viral,’” she told SEE Check. Šesterikov believes a significant part of the problem is a lack of media literacy, but also that audiences become desensitized due to the large amount of disturbing content available in the media and on social networks.

Marko Nedeljković thinks that the media manipulated the audience’s emotions and exploited the case to incite fear, anger, and distress in the public. “When such strong emotions are evoked, people feel the need to act. The first thing they will do is click to read the text or watch the video to find out what they should actually be afraid of, which means learning as many details as possible because, in a way, that is the ‘first defense mechanism,'” he stated. This approach manipulates the audience’s natural responses to enhance engagement, often at the expense of ethical standards.

The media are well aware of the impact of their content, claims Nedeljković, as they monitor analytical data daily and can precisely identify which content generates the most attention, clicks, and audience reactions, and thus, they promote such content. According to Nedeljković, studies show that headlines which provoke fear have increased by as much as 150% since the year 2000, those that provoke anger by 104%, and those that evoke sadness by 54%.

“Another significant element is that algorithms also favor content that triggers more intense reactions from the audience, particularly when they are distressed. Such disturbing content is often fake news,” Nedeljković told SEE Check, recalling research by ProPublica in 2022 which demonstrated that Google, as the world’s largest search engine, predominantly directs digital advertising revenue towards online media outlets that disseminate fake news.

Speaking to SEE Check, Nedeljković pointed out that media outlets adhering to ethical standards often attract a smaller audience. However, he underscored that in the coming years, revenue from the audience will become increasingly vital for media sustainability. Thus, the focus for media organizations should shift from merely attracting a large audience to earning the trust of those willing to pay for their content.

“To put it differently, for media outlets with long-term aspirations, the foremost priority should no longer be maximizing site traffic, but rather cultivating the trust of an audience willing to invest in their content. This will ultimately dictate the success of professional media in the future,” Nedeljković explained to SEE Check.

Distrust in the Official Narrative

The conflicting information circulated in the media has evidently sowed confusion among the public, leading many to distrust the official narrative of events and turn to alternative sources of information. This is not a lone case. A study conducted by Nedeljković in collaboration with the Center for Media Professionalization and Media Literacy (CEPROM) last year revealed that as many as 46.3% of citizens in Serbia do not trust the media.

“In such an environment of profound distrust in the media, it’s unsurprising that citizens are increasingly turning to social networks. They perceive social platforms as avenues where they can uncover information that traditional media outlets either hide from them or manipulate intentionally. The situation on social networks is, of course, even more problematic, but in conditions of great distrust in the media, citizens are resorting to them more frequently as their primary information sources,” explained Nedeljković.

Conspiracy theories abound on social networks, offering alternative versions of events in the development of the case of the missing girl.

“I am quite sure that this is yet another lie that we will never find out, and after days of being fed the story about how the ‘mother’ of little D. was deleting messages and internet searches, we get this outcome??? I do not believe it,” stated a viral post on Threads social network. 

Saša Borojević, a well-known proponent of conspiracy theories, has asserted that the underlying objective of this case is to promote the microchipping of children. An alarming indication of the normalization of such conspiracy theories is the fact that Borojević is a candidate of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) for the upcoming Belgrade elections.

It appears that the media are currently incentivized by the state, audiences, and advertisers, primarily through large online platforms to engage in unprofessional reporting. Regrettably, within this landscape, media ethics and the educational function of the press are frequently neglected. Self-regulatory bodies often prove ineffective due to a lack of punitive measures and media accountability, while unprofessional reporting is sometimes rewarded with budget funds. While some experts we consulted express optimism that media outlets will eventually prioritize maintaining consumer trust and loyalty, it is unlikely that these market shifts alone will be sufficient to rectify the numerous flaws within the system.