Does ABC News think people of color don’t go missing? Given their latest article on missing persons the FBI and local authorities are actively searching for, the answer appears to be yes.
Of the 15 missing people ABC profiles, all but one are white, which wouldn’t be such a big deal if the article reflected the demographics of the missing persons population. But it didn’t even come close.
According to FBI data, of the 661,593 people reported missing in 2012, 265,683 (40 percent) were minorities, slightly more were female than male and a disproportionate amount (33.8 percent) were African Americans who only make up 13 percent of the overall population. Conversely, the list of missing persons at ABC included just two young boys and a single African American girl. The rest were literally all white females ranging from blue eyed babies to a woman in her late 30s. And an overwhelming majority were “pretty” as defined by western beauty standards.
Still, it would be unfair to place all the blame on ABC News. After all, the article reflects class and racial indifference in the broader establishment press, where middle and upper class white victims of abduction, preferably the pretty ones, are prioritized over everyone else.
The overrepresentation of white people as victims and people of color as criminals has been well documented, as has the sheer invisibly of stories about women, unless of course they’re being framed as passive victims. As the Maynard Institute explains:
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.
That 2005 study revealed that “For a missing child to attract widespread publicity and improve the odds of being found, it helps if the child is white, wealthy, cute and under 12.” This glaring contrast was most notable during the 2011 trial of Casey Anthony, who was acquitted in the murder of her toddler, Caylee. The story gripped the nation’s news media for weeks. At the time, KPPC reporter Leslie Berestein Rojas noted that “similarly tragic criminal cases involving children – the horrific abuse and death of 4-year-old Marchella Pierce in New York, the murder of 9-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father in Arizona during a home invasion by border vigilantes – have received scant coverage in comparison.”
“The stories of these three children are equally sad, how they died equally gut-wrenching. One difference is that Caylee was white, Marchella was black, and Brisenia was Mexican American,” argued Rojas.
There are many explanations for the media’s continued indifference toward missing persons of color. Some blame the lack of diversity in the very white male dominated establishment press. Others point to the media’s desire to appeal to viewers/readers who are, by default, assumed to be predominantly white and middle class. While I agree with both assessments, I would also add structural racism as a major factor.
America is built on white supremacist ideals. To deny that this mindset plays a role in US culture today doesn’t make it any less true. By simply growing up in America, all of us, including people of color, are conditioned to equate whiteness with innocence, beauty and success, whereas black and brown folks are synonymous with crime, violence, inferior intelligence and promiscuity. Therefore diversifying the media (which we should totally keep on doing) isn’t necessarily going to lead to more equal coverage.
In the end, whatever the case may be, we have to be willing to examine the culture that produces such striking racial disparities in news coverage because who the media chooses to cover could mean the difference between life and death for victims of abduction.
Below are pictures of missing people of color, mostly children. Click on the images to find out more about them at the Black and Missing Foundation, an organization trying to increase awareness of missing persons of color.