According to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) in 2020, 268,884 girls and women were reported missing in the United States. Almost 34% of those missing (over 90,000) were blacks, far greater than their share in the overall female population.
According to census data, black girls and women make up only about 15% of America’s female population. In contrast, white girls and women, including those who identify as Hispanic, accounted for 59% of the missing, while making up 75% of the overall female population.
Despite the numbers, these statistics and, more importantly, these stories are not reflected in the media coverage of missing persons cases.
Often described as “missing white woman” or “missing white girl” syndrome, the phenomenon recently made headlines when MSNBC host Joy Reid discussed Gabby Petito’s case. As authorities converged on Wyoming to search for Petito, in the same state, more than 400 Indigenous girls and women went missing between 2011 and fall 2020, according to a report from the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center at the University of Wyoming.
Indigenous people made up 21% of homicide victims in Wyoming between 2000 and 2020, though they make up less than 3% of the state’s population. The disparity is magnified when it comes to the media: only 18% of Indigenous female victims received media coverage, while among white victims, 51% made headlines.
Criminologist Zach Sommers published a 2016 study, where for a year he examined every article about a missing person on CNN, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He then looked at the demographics of the people appearing in those stories and compared them to the FBI’s Missing Persons List.
Guess what he found?
White girls and white women were significantly over-represented. Although white women made up about a third of those missing, they made up about half of all articles written about missing people. We shouldn’t be surprised, at least theoretically, that missing women are disproportionately featured in the news – the damsel in distress phenomenon. But women of color are both members of a marginalized gender group and a marginalized racial group. I would say this intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism.
In other words, like white women, women of color are prone to sexism, but the form of this sexism differs for them due to the cumulative effects of racial discrimination.
This phenomenon is not new. The term “missing white girl syndrome” was coined by the late Gwen Ifill to describe the media and public fascination with missing white women. How many of us remember Nancy Grace and her obsession with Natalee Holloway, while ignoring cases involving missing people of color when they go missing? And who can forget all the attention that surrounds Lacey Peterson, the pregnant woman killed by her husband Scott?
Anyone who has watched television or listened to the radio can attest to this disparity. As Ms Ifill acknowledged, coverage decisions are made in places that continue to be disproportionately white. Cases involving middle-class white women resonate with editors and news agencies, historically dominated by white men. The only area of diversity that has really improved in the news media is the representation of women, especially white women, in leadership roles. Hopefully, as more women and people of color take these seats, the coverage decisions will change. Diversity of coverage and content is essential.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we pay more attention as a form of competition; these are other groups who receive the same attention as white victims and whose lives are honored in the same way. Why this disparate treatment? At the risk of sounding offhand, why the disparate treatment between whites and people of color in so many other areas? We can certainly point to the scourge of slavery in this country to say that historically we have clearly valued the lives of whites more than those of people of color. But it is not enough to attribute this phenomenon to generic racism; the answer, in part, is just as if not more concerning because of how we continue to rely on a false narrative that only perpetuates racism and undermines our ability to protect vulnerable women.
Women and girls of color are often seen as “less innocent” when portrayed in the media. Often they are criminalized and portrayed as such in the media if they receive any media coverage. Historically, women of color have not been considered damsels in distress.
“There are tropes around the ‘angry black woman’, ‘the strong Hispanic woman’ that we don’t need to be nurtured, protected and centered,” observed Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead, associate professor of communications and African American Studies at Loyola University Maryland, in a report. “White victims tend to be described as being in very safe environments, so it is shocking that something like this can happen, while black and Latino victims are described as being in dangerous environments, thus normalizing essentially victimization, ”she added.
Other sociologists have suggested that white women are often characterized or portrayed as good people, while women of color are often characterized as risk-takers or somehow complicit in their own disappearances. A good example of this was when, before 11 women were found on serial killer Anthony Sowell’s property in Cleveland in 2009, and families turned to law enforcement for help in locating their relatives, they were told that the women were on drugs. or fled, and the authorities did nothing to find them.
Not only do these lives deserve more media coverage, there must be a better data repository to use as an intervention. There is a phrase for you data freaks: whatever we cherish, we measure it. Each problem-solving model emphasizes the importance of information, knowing as much as possible about the problem; the history of the problem, the causes and origin of the problem, previous solutions that worked or failed, the extent of the problem and its impact.
We need to assess with some degree of certainty the impact of media coverage and public attention on safe recovery; the socio-economic context of the victims which may limit the resources available to family members and law enforcement agencies to rescue victims; and even some legally irrelevant factors which nonetheless have an impact on police responses. Is there any doubt that the impact of these variables translates into varying recovery rates or that mere media attention increases the speed and therefore the success of police investigations?
Speed matters. According to Child Find of America, an organization that provides education and training to help locate missing children, the need to wait 24 hours before calling authorities is a practice that can have detrimental effects, especially since acting in First 48 hours is crucial. “You may have heard that you have to wait 24 hours before reporting a missing person, but the waiting period is a myth,” the organization’s website says.
Others are calling on governments to pass legislation that can aid the safe return of missing persons, such as the Ashanti Alert Act passed in 2018. Named after Ashanti Billie, a 19-year-old black woman who was kidnapped and killed in 2017, Bill established a nationwide communications network to inform the public of missing persons aged 18 and over who fall outside the scope of emergency response alerts from America’s broadcast (AMBER) and money alerts. It still needs significant funding to be effective.
Closer to home, we all remember the media attention around Jennifer Dulos, a mother of five who went missing in May 2019. As a former commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, I can’t begin to count the number of women of color whose children were in care when they were also missing, and I challenge any reader of this column to recall similar media attention, let alone the public outcry . Our rapid responses to these reports of missing women of color can help locate and rescue them. And our inability to respond as we do when a white woman is reported missing prevents their safe return.
We have a lot of work to do.
Originally published by the Connecticut Law Tribune
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