Finding Our Missing


Explaining the Coverage Gap for Missing People of Color

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A reward poster near television news trucks in San Diego, Calif. advertises the reward for finding Danielle van Dam, 7.

A new TV show premiered this week on TV One, focusing on cases of missing African Americans. One of the first featured stories was about a missing D.C. black woman.

The show, “Finding Our Missing,” aims to correct the disparity in coverage of missing African Americans. For years, critics have blasted media outlets for devoting significant airtime to cases of missing white women, while not devoting similar coverage to cases of missing blacks or Latinos.

Why is there such a disparity, or “coverage gap?” Our sister blog Multi-American pointed to an interview with Poynter Institute faculty member and media ethics expert Kelly McBride. Here is an excerpt:

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.

McBride continued, saying that it’s easier to fix the coverage gap on a local level. She suggested a few strategies:

.. Journalists simply need to make sure they are examining all murders and missing people and giving them similar coverage. (That’s actually really hard to do, but it’s easier than the national solution.) And because local journalists are loyal to their local community, they are generally motivated to serve that audience well.

On a national level, journalists are not accountable in the same way. So there’s less motivation to change the dynamics that lead to tilted coverage. It would take a significant act of leadership at a place like CNN or Fox to break out of this cycle. And I’m not sure there’s enough accountability to make that happen.

You can read the entire Q&A here.

‘Finding Our Missing’ and Disparities in Missing Persons Coverage

Roxanne Cooke / Flickr

For years, there have been vocal critics of media’s handling of missing persons cases. Particularly when it comes to national news, cases of missing white women tend to get more attention than people of other races. The problem extends beyond not adequately covering minority communities; media coverage and attention can be crucial in solving cases of missing persons.

A new TV One show premiering tonight, “Find Our Missing,” aims to correct the disparity by spreading the word about missing African Americans. The show is part of a collaboration with nonprofit Black and Missing. Some of the first cases featured on the show focus on D.C. women Pamela Butler and Unique Harris. The Washington Posts reports:

… “Find Our Missing’s” main mission isn’t media criticism or a social harangue — especially since the first two cases seen here received a considerable, if belated, amount of local coverage. Rather, in the manner of “America’s Most Wanted,” it encourages viewers to come forward with useful information. Everything you need to know about “Find Our Missing” is in that second word: our. The series keeps its outrage just out of view; its foremost concern is for the missing, as well as their friends and relatives.

Increasing television airtime for these cases could lead to their solving. Another tool that could be useful is social media, but is there a disparity there, too? Twitter, Facebook and other forums are free and open for anyone to use, so it would seem these could be the perfect ways to circumvent any media bias. But take the case of Emily Hershenson, a white D.C. woman and ex-Capitol Hill staffer, who went missing on 2011. Many locals took to Twitter and other networks to spread the word. Tweets called on news organizations to move the story up in prominence, and her name was a trending topic. Some wondered, however, if the case would have received as much attention on Twitter had Hershenson been of a different race and class.