This may be one of the saddest truths of modern media: Attractive white women get news coverage when they disappear.
But missing colored women often only get media coverage when people notice how much attention everyone is paying to the white women.
That dynamic jumps off the screen during HBO’s latest documentary series Black and missing, made by several Emmy winner Geeta Gandbhir and longtime journalist / writer / activist Soledad O’Brien. Presented in four parts over two days, the documentary series focuses on The Black and Missing Foundation, Inc., a Maryland-based nonprofit founded by two powerful black women dedicated to searching for missing colored people when police and the media falls short.
The Black and Missing Foundation has a list of people who have disappeared, including Akia Eggleston, Keeshae Jacobs and Relisha Rudd. please click here to learn more and help in the search.
Viewers meet co-founders Derrica Wilson, a former Virginia police officer (she was the first black female police officer in the town of Falls Church) and Natalie Wilson, a public relations expert. They are also sisters-in-law – two tenacious women whose skills and experience complement each other in their crusade to create more awareness of missing non-white people.
Derrica speaks the language of law enforcement and presses reluctant police departments to take cases that are all too often shrugged as someone flees their lives. Natalie urges the media to pay attention and coach the missing family and friends in how they can attract attention to their loved ones – knowing that publicity can bring the kind of pressure that also convinces law enforcement to devote additional resources to outstanding cases.
Natalie is also a repository of statistics, which she drops throughout the documentaries, pointing out the extent to which different cases of missing persons involving colored people are handled.
According to Natalie, 40 percent of the approximately 600,000 people who disappeared in 2019 were colored – most of them black. She also notes that black cases take four times longer to resolve, and the extra time makes the investigation more difficult.
“The majority of these [people of color who go missing] are black, but if you ask anyone to name three missing African Americans, I guarantee you they will fall short, “Natalie says in the series, well aware of how continuous coverage burned the names of white women like Gabby Petito, Natalee Holloway, Elizabeth Smart and JonBenét Ramsey into the minds of ordinary news consumers.
Forces the world to see those who have long been ignored
The documentary series reveals the hard work at the ground level required to spread the word about these cases – shows Natalie, Derrica and their volunteers posting flyers, going through neighborhoods, advising families and building online platforms. Alongside that work, the series tells the story of remarkable cases the group has worked on – including the disappearance of Pam Butler, sister of one of the group’s most loyal volunteers, Derrick Butler.
Butler’s sister Pam disappeared in 2009. The story of how he kept pressuring police to investigate her disappearance, while helping the Black and Missing Foundation help other families, spans several episodes and evidence of how compelling these stories can be for the media if they take the time to explore them.
The documentary series also does a good job of explaining how well-established dynamics in race, society and the police often hamper efforts to get the attention of non-white people who are disappearing. Of course, there is an exploration of “Missing White Woman Syndrome” – a phrase credited to the late PBS anchor Gwen Ifill, who described the madness of the media when attractive, middle-class-like white women suddenly disappear.
But the series also explores how police and society may assume that it is not so unusual for black people to meet with disgusting play, so that it is not defined as “news” or seen as an important emergency when such a thing happens. Or how the police can end the investigation prematurely by assuming that a missing person has run away, at a time when every moment of effort counts.
“Who has the right to sign the death sentence on a child by saying, ‘Run. Forget about it’?” says John Walsh, longtime host America’s most sought after, who was interviewed for the documentary series.
And given that black women are more likely to be victims of abuse but less likely to attract sustained attention from law enforcement or the media, you have the basis for a terrible dynamic.
Tips to Curb ‘Missing White Women Syndrome’
As a journalist, I was upset, angry and stuck watching this series when I asked a nagging question: If everyone knows this dynamic of underreporting about lost people of color are real, why then do not news media everywhere do more to change it?
So I contacted O’Brien to get a list of the things she and her team thought the media could do right now to help address these issues of under-representation and under-coverage. (One idea I had: local TV stations could just spend a minute at the end of their newscasts highlighting missing colored people from their area).
News has these concepts of what will sell [white viewers] and what will not. And so many of those concepts are just b — s —, “says the famous outspoken O’Brien.” If they decided, from next week, that these stories are important, the media could start covering them right away . “
Here are a few tips from O’Brien and her staff:
Just cover the stories. If the news media say that missing persons with color mean something, they can prove it – by covering disappearances and search efforts without apologies when they happen.
Highlight missing people who are not considered “attractive” or may have complicated personal stories. Time to unlearn the habit of focusing mostly on beautiful people with telegene faces or victims with relatively immaculate personal stories. Life is complex and news coverage should communicate it.
Spend less time covering one person. Spend the hours digging into one, busy disappearance – like Gabby Pettito – and use some of these resources to highlight other people who are missing and have lower profiles instead.
Develop ongoing relationships with groups in non-white communities. Too many mainstream news media have so few connections in black and brown neighborhoods that they do not know when people will disappear in the first place. Time to connect with these communities so they trust mainstream businesses with news when someone has disappeared.
Do not pretend that coverage decisions do not create news. Some media executives who insist that they only cover the news and do not reach out ignore how a business – especially a large, mainstream news platform – can inspire coverage from competitors by even focusing on a specific topic.
If these stories seem uninteresting, consider that it may be the storyteller’s fault. Journalists who are disconnected from colored communities may not be passionate about telling their stories. That does not mean that the stories are not worth covering.
Recognize that challenging traditional coverage strategies are the whole point of diversity on the editorial board. Lots of news media proclaim the value of ethnic and cultural diversity in newsrooms, but do not understand that such diversity should be pursued by serious challenges to traditional, white-centered coverage strategies. In the end, it’s a bit of a point to add perspectives to change coverage.
When missing persons with color get coverage, be careful of the words and pictures used. Audiences are accustomed to taking cues from the framing of stories to signal whether the subject deserves their sympathy, attention, or help. So the type of images, facts and phrases used in the story should be fair as possible, to encourage the most fair response from the community.