Why Missing People of Color Aren’t a Media Priority
Author:Nadra Kareem Nittle
February 8, 2012
Media outlets have traditionally devoted a disproportionate amount of newsprint and airtime to investigating disappearances of middle-class whites, especially women, while often ignoring minority women and other demographics, such as men and the poor.
A 2005 study by Scripps Howard News Service found that although half of missing children are white, they were subjects of more than two-thirds of reports on the Associated Press national news wire during the last five years and for three-fourths of missing-children coverage on CNN.
The data point to a need for the media to be colorblind on this topic. A victim’s race should not impact coverage, especially when media attention can help bring a child home or determine whether a crime has been committed. Experts cite a need for the media to provide a civic responsibility to cover all missing persons cases.
“Historically, the perfect victim is a young female who is Caucasian and considered cute as a button and if there’s a sketchy family history, it feeds into the formula,” says Gaetane Borders, president of Peas In Their Pods, a nonprofit in Snellville, Ga., that raises awareness about missing children of color.
“Find Our Missing,” a new show on the TV One cable network, hopes to change the trend. The program focuses entirely on cases of missing African-Americans. Since its debut Jan. 18, the show has led to mainstream media outlets such as ABC News and Britain’s Daily Mail reporting on race-based media bias regarding missing persons. Whether buzz about “Find Our Missing” will lead the media to increase coverage of missing minorities is unclear.
“The show has definitely reignited the discussion on the coverage and awareness of missing persons of color,” says Natalie Wilson, cofounder and public relations director of the Black and Missing Foundation Inc. (BAMFI) in Landover Hills, Md. The foundation is TV One’s nonprofit partner for the program. “Media outlets are also becoming more receptive to airing stories of our missing than before.”
But challenges remain, according to Derrica N. Wilson, BAMFI’s cofounder, president and CEO. Although the media may be open to broadening their definition of “the perfect victim,” she says news outlets don’t necessarily understand the vital role they play in reuniting missing people with their loved ones.
Since “Find Our Missing” went on the air, BAMFI has received an increasing number of tips on whereabouts of the missing. A media spotlight not only brings missing people into public view but may also pressure law enforcement authorities slow to investigate the disappearances, say Derrica and Natalie Wilson, who are sisters-in-law with backgrounds in law enforcement and public relations, respectively.
Given that blacks make up an estimated 40 percent of missing people, far greater than their approximately 13 percent share of the U.S. population, African-Americans warrant just as much, if not more, media attention when they disappear as whites.
On rare occasions, missing black people have gripped the headlines. Borders and Deidra Robey, founder and CEO and founder of the organization Black and Missing But Not Forgotten, cite the case of Jahessye Shockley, a 5-year-old Arizona girl reported missing last October. The Daily News in New York, the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe are among news outlets covering the case.
News that her mother, Jerice Hunter, had served time in prison for child abuse gave the case a twist that enticed the news media, Borders says.
In late December, police in Glendale, Ariz., said they believed that Jahessye was killed and that her body was dumped in a trash bin across town before her mother reported her missing. Police cited Hunter as a focus of their investigation.
That news drew comparisons to the case of Casey Anthony, a white Florida woman who was tried and acquitted last year in the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. Despite similarities between the cases, there was little initial coverage of Jahessye’s disappearance.
“I believe the only reason why she got so much media attention is because her grandmother started saying, ‘You’re not covering my grandchild because she’s black,’ ” Robey says.
Borders notes that the Shockley family held prayer vigils and other events on the child’s behalf to attract media coverage. She contends that news outlets never explicitly say they won’t cover cases of missing African-Americans, and suggests that the media may believe that the stories won’t attract many readers or broadcast audience.
“They don’t think people are going to watch these stories,” Borders says.
Moreover, Robey also contends that the black press isn’t necessarily more likely to cover missing African-Americans than the mainstream media. Black news outlets, she believes, also lean toward covering victims who are attractive and may have disappeared in sensational circumstances. If a missing-persons investigation produces no leads, she says it seems the media generally hesitates to report on it.
Increasingly, the African-American community is turning to social media to spread the word about missing women, children and men of color.
“Social media has been one of the main ways my organization has been able to share news,” Borders says. “I don’t own a production company, but it’s so easy to put something out there and have other people re-post it. . . .That’s really what it’s going to take—individuals with their own Facebook and Twitter.”
Websites About the Black and Missing:
Black and Missing but Not Forgotten, Blackandmissing.org
Peas in Their Pods, www.peasintheirpods.com
Black and Missing Foundation Inc., www.BAMFI.org
Scripps Howard Study:
Devah Pager - Princeton University
Study: Black Man and White Felon – Same Chances for Hire
Racism and Health:
Understanding Multiple Pathways
Presentation | Discussion Transcript (PDF)
Hudson Institute Debate
Race and Racism in America: Are We Now a Color Blind Society? (video)
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