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Racial bias affects media coverage of missing people. A new tool illustrates how.

  • News

Jonathan Franklin
December 5, 2022

Thousands of people are reported missing in the United States each year. And while not every missing person case will get widespread media coverage, the fight to locate them — whether alive or dead — is always the main priority.

However, when it comes to missing person cases involving people of color, that same media attention quickly dissolves, ultimately feeding into the phenomenon of ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ — a phrase coined by the late journalist Gwen Ifill that addresses the media’s fascination with covering attractive, middle class-looking white women in comparison to missing persons of color.

This so-called media phenomenon never sat right with Kyle Pope, the editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), who in an interview with NPR said something had to be done.

“Everybody talks about it and says ‘We got to do something about it,’ and nothing happens,” Pope said.

“If you go missing and the press devotes a lot of attention to it, you have a better chance of a decent outcome, whereas you don’t if they ignore it,” he added.

In an effort to start the conversation on how both newsrooms and individuals cover stories involving missing people, CJR launched a new tool that allows users to openly share their “press value” with the world if they were to go missing.

The new tool, called “Are You Press Worthy?,” estimates that younger, white women will get increasingly more news coverage than other racial groups — such as Black, Latino and Indigenous people.

To generate the database, researchers at CJR and advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day/New York surveyed roughly 3,600 articles about missing people reported last year by U.S. news outlets — including TV, radio, newspapers and digital media, according to a news release.

From this, researchers were able to match the sampling in combination with factors such as age, gender and race from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) database to create the analysis.

“The implications of this are literally life and death — the amount of media coverage you get immediately after you go missing has a direct result on what happens to your case,” Pope said.

It’s increasingly common for people of color to go missing

t’s no secret that missing person cases across the United States are becoming way more common — as the numbers continue to increase each year.

On average, more than 600,000 people go missing in the U.S. each year, according to the National Crime Information Center. Research shows that in 2021 alone, nearly 521,000 people were reported missing across the U.S. — with 40% of those cases being missing persons of color.

And sadly, 38% of people who go missing in the U.S. are Black, which is double the U.S. Black population of about 14%, according to the Black and Missing Foundation.

“I will say this, we are not naive to believe that every missing persons case will get national media attention,” Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation — a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing awareness to missing persons of color — told NPR.

Wilson said the nonprofit not only brings awareness to missing people of color across the U.S. but goes beyond the extra mile and helps families in the search for their missing loved one.

“What we’re trying to do is change that narrative — to show that our missing are important, too,” Wilson said.

Some families are still dealing with how the media covers missing persons of color

David Robinson II wishes he wasn’t intimately aware of how the media chooses to cover missing people.

David’s son, Daniel, was last seen leaving a job site in Buckeye, Ariz., on June 23, 2021, and was reported missing later that day. It’s been almost 18 months since Daniel went missing.

David tells NPR that when it came to his son, a Black man who moved to Phoenix for a job as a field geologist after graduating from college in 2019, it was extremely difficult to try and get any sort of media attention about his disappearance — which he describes as offensive.

“Once I got [to Arizona], of course, I was on [the search] to find my son. I knew how important it was to get the word out about my son’s case,” David said.

He says after nearly three months of trying to grab the attention of local news outlets, he finally was able to get news coverage for Daniel’s disappearance.

“The media wasn’t really at the time reaching back out. So I had to keep pressing and pressing, but it took a lot of hard work,” David said.

There are groups working to address the lack of coverage gap

News outlets as a whole are continuing to recognize this ongoing form of explicit media bias. Some local and national news outlets are making an effort to be more inclusive when it comes to covering missing person cases.

In addition, several organizations and websites are working together to raise awareness and tell the often-untold stories that normally wouldn’t get media attention.

Our Black Girls centers on the stories of Black girls and women who have gone missing or, in some cases, were found dead under mysterious circumstances.

Launched in 2018 by journalist Erika Marie Rivers, the website is a one-woman show — as Rivers spends her nights scouring missing persons databases, archived news footage, old articles and other information she can find to piece together these untold stories.

“I wanted to have a space where the stories of Black girls and Black women were being shared in this kind of culture of infotainment when it comes to true crime,” Rivers said.

Since the website’s launch four years ago, Rivers has published an article nearly every other day. She told NPR that while it may be a grueling schedule, she keeps the website up and running — because, as she emphasizes, she could have easily been one of these missing girls and women.

“This isn’t a part of some greater organization. It’s just me at home really kind of trying to do the work on behalf of my community … to show other people that whatever resources you have, you don’t have to have a lot to do a lot or even just to impact a little,” Rivers said.

“You never know how that’s going to change someone’s life or help someone within your own community feel seen,” she added.

Wilson echoed these sentiments.

“We all have a responsibility to not only stand up for ourselves but to raise awareness about this issue. It’s really a pandemic that’s affecting our community,” Wilson said.

Photo credit: Thomas Cain/Associated Press

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