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When people of color go missing

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89.3 KPCC
Leslie Berestein Rojas
March 15, 2012

The gist of a report released yesterday regarding how authorities handled the case of Mitrice Richardson, a young woman found dead almost two years ago in a Malibu canyon, dealt with poor communication between agencies after her body was found, not with how her disappearance was handled or the decisions that led up to it.

But because it’s part of a larger puzzle, her case is worth bringing up again for other reasons. Richardson, who was black, was 24 years old when she was released from the Malibu-Lost Hills station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after midnight without her purse or a cell phone. Her car had been towed after Richardson, a former beauty queen and college graduate who struggled with mental illness, was arrested for not paying her bill at a Malibu restaurant.

In the criticism since lobbed at the Sheriff’s Department, the role of race in how her case was handled has been more than implied. Richardson’s parents filed suit for wrongful death, charging that authorities should never have released her how they did, in the middle of the night in unfamiliar surroundings with no transportation or way of contacting anyone for help.

As for media coverage, Richardson’s case eventually made major headlines, but not initially, when the search for her began. It may not have made a difference. But there is a stark gap in coverage of missing persons, children and adults, that is tied to race and ethnicity. Last month the Maynard Institute, which promotes diversity in journalism, published a piece explaining – painfully – why people of color are not a media priority:

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.

The piece compares two recent similar cases involving missing children: that of Jahessye Shockley, a five-year-old black Arizona girl who went missing last October, and Caylee Anthony, a two-year-old white Florida girl whose mother was tried for her death and acquitted last year.

Jahessey’s story eventually received media attention, but not after three months had gone by and police announced that her mother, who had a history of child abuse, was a suspect:

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.

There may be some truth to that last part. Last July I interviewed Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member with The Poynter Institute and one of the nation’s leading experts on media ethics. We discussed why the Anthony case had grown to become the news of the day, while other cases involving murdered children of color – namely Brisenia Flores, a nine-year-old Latina killed with her father in their home by anti-immigrant vigilantes, and Marchella Pierce, a 4-year-old black victim of parental abuse – had received minimal attention. Here’s a chunk of the interview:

M-A: Why do you think these tragic cases involving white children get much more ink? Is there an “otherness” factor in the news decisions that are made, i.e. that perhaps because the family is of color, the audience may not be able to identify as well?

McBride: Some of it has to do with assumptions that we make in the media about what’s “normal” and what’s “compelling.” One of the things driving the Casey Anthony saga is the window into a dysfunctional family. So if we’re fascinated by this family, then we must think they are unusual. And race plays into that.

It’s possible that the people making decisions in newsrooms have a default assumption about what’s normal (functional) and not normal (dysfunctional) for white families. And it’s possible that they have a default assumption about families of color that are the opposite of what they assume for white families. Maybe some of that is true or all of it is true. But it plays into how editors make news judgments.

M-A: Is there an unspoken sense, however uncomfortable this is, that perhaps because the family of an exploited or murdered child is of color, that “these things happen” in these communities?

McBride: Maybe. And maybe it’s even worse than that. Maybe people of color are so much the other, that those in power just don’t think of them at all.

Painful, yes. And it’s difficult to change the newsroom dynamics and perceptions that lead to “tilted coverage,” as McBride described it, requiring major changes at the top.

There have been some efforts lately to close the gap in the handling of these cases, both media and law enforcement-wise. A show that premiered earlier this year, “Find Our Missing,” features the stories of black people who have disappeared. Put together with collaboration from the nonprofit Black and Missing, it encourages viewers to come forward with information. There are also some efforts aimed at finding missing children of color, including Peas in Their Pods, dedicated to black children, and two bilingual initiatives developed via the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that launched to years ago, with a focus on Latino children.

Photo credit: Ray Bilcliff from Pexels

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