Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Media & Its Fascination with Missing White Females


After spending the summer in Michigan two years ago, I was confronted on my return home to Orlando with not only the heat and humidity that August brings in Florida, but also with the media onslaught of yet another missing person case.

I had heard of the story of the missing little girl, Caylee Anthony, while up North, but since her home is just minutes away from my own, our local newspaper and television coverage of the case has been rather extensive. Even without the benefit of cable television and 24-hour news coverage, the drama of the Anthony family seems to constantly be in front of me.

While I have no problem with her extended family getting the word out about her disappearance, I am growing tired of the media's fascination with missing person stories. I certainly wouldn't want to hinder a family from doing whatever it takes to find a missing loved one, but it appears that the media only wants to help with these searches when the missing loved one is a white female (and it doesn't hurt if she's pretty or cute and her family has some money). Sadly, my perception is based in reality.

In a study done a few years ago by Scripps Howard News Service, it was discovered that although whites make up just over half of all missing persons cases, they accounted for 76% of CNN's coverage. Black children, on the other hand, made up only 13% of CNN's coverage of missing individuals although the FBI found that 1/3 of missing children are African American. Hispanic children made up only 9% of CNN's focus, yet were 21% of missing children in a Justice Department study. In addition the reporting on missing boys and men compared to females is woeful.

So why do the sad tales of Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway and Elizabeth Smart and Madeleine McCann and Caylee Anthony garner so much attention and hardly any of us have heard of someone like Tamika Huston, a young African American woman who was missing for more than a year before her body was found? Her disappearance generated little national media attention and is just one example of a media bias that has even led to the coining of a new phrase, "Missing White Woman Syndrome."

One of the most egregious examples of this would be the case of Jennifer Wilbanks, the woman who got cold feet before her wedding and took off without telling anyone. To make matters worse, she called the police and told them she had been kidnapped by a Hispanic and white women (Of course, this was all a lie). It brings to mind the case from the mid-90's of Susan Smith, who had accused a black man of taking her kids, when she, in fact, had murdered them herself. So not only are people of color not equitably represented in the media when discussing these cases, but they are often wrongly accused by those involved.

As I mentioned previously, I don't fault the families for using all available resources to find those that they care about. I would do the same if I were to be in their position. But I do blame those that report the news for not giving adequate attention to those that have been abducted simply because they aren't white enough, rich enough, feminine enough or pretty enough. It is truly heartbreaking when anyone goes missing and those with the resources and platform to help should do so without discrimination.

There are a number of websites that are seeking to help bring attention to this problem by reporting on under-represented cases of missing people. A couple sites that I found in researching for this post are Black and Missing and Missing Minorities. Check them out to learn more.

1 comment:

Yogini said...

Great article. I completely agree.

My friend, 23 y/o Miami mother, Lilly Aramburo, disappeared June 1, 2007. Lilly was born in San Francisco but her family is from Mexico. It's been more than a year and still not ONE local or national news media has ever covered her story.(Despite hundreds of emails)It's as if she never existed at all. I can't express how frustrating it's been (between law enforcement and media). The only medium we've been able to use to raise awareness about her is the internet. I started a blog last year and have tons of info across social media space (facebook, myspace, etc). And now to make matters worse, police are not happy about my blog at all. They're trying very hard to intimidate me into stopping. But I love my 1st amendment rights. And I won't be silenced. Her 2 y/o son deserves to know the truth, his mom would never abandon him.

I think it's extremely foul that media attention for the missing has a lot to do with race and class. It's a shame. This kind of injustice and inequality is all too common. But I thank you for doing your part to expose it.