If you’re missing, It’s better to be white

by Kristen McDaniel

On June 23, 1997, Kristen Modafferi left work and disappeared without a trace. Her parents appealed to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for help with the search, but were denied. Kristen had turned 18 three weeks before she disappeared, making her above the age cutoff to be listed through the center. The Modafferis shared their story with North Carolina Congresswoman Sue Myrick, who proposed legislation to establish a national clearinghouse for missing adults. In October 2000, Congress unanimously passed the bill, called Kristen’s Act, which created the National Center for Missing Adults.

Every day, more than 2,300 people are reported missing, including both adults and children. In 2008, the Department of Justice listed 102,764 missing persons cases as being active. Most missing persons are juveniles under the age of 18 who are found within hours of filing the report. The majority of missing adults in the U.S. are white males. Most media coverage focuses on attractive, young, white females from the middle or upper class.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, minorities account for more than one-third of the total population. Hispanic and African Americans are the largest minority groups. Most Americans, more than 60%, are classified as lower middle class or working class. About one-third of missing children reported in the U.S. are African American, a far cry from what the media portrays in it’s reporting on missing persons. In total, 47% of missing children reported come from racial minorities.

The disparity in reporting on missing persons has come to be called “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” The stereotypical portrayal of a missing woman is that she has been kidnapped by a stranger, when, statistically, this counts for the smallest minority of cases. The “Missing White Woman Syndrome” further plays into this stereotype and implies that white women are victims, whereas other missing persons are just another, less important, statistic. These damsel in distress type cases may not be a reflection of government statistics, they do garner the most attention and the most urgency.

One specific example of Missing White Woman Syndrome is from Iraq in 2003. Jessica Lynch, Shoshanna Johnson, and Lori Piestewa were ambushed in the same attack. Piestewa, a Hopi, was a poor, single mother. She was killed in the attack while Lynch and Johnson were injured and taken prisoner. Media coverage focused on Lynch, who was a young, white woman. Johnson was a black, single mother. In this particular case, media critics imply that attention was focused on Lynch because people would more readily identify with her.

Columbia University journalism professor Kristal Brent Zook suggests this need for the audience to identify with the victim could play a role in choices that media outlets make when it comes to a missing person. She goes further and says that the gap reflects a failure of journalism. “If we were really interested in real news, we would probably look overall at numbers of missing persons and women and [conduct] a more in-depth analysis of who’s missing and why…I don’t think we’re really interested in that. I think we’re interested in the sexy, sensationalist stories.”

Natalee Holloway, who disappeared in Aruba in 2005, fits into that description. Her case sparked heavy debate over the “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” Lacy Peterson, Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart, and Caylee Anthony all fall into the same category as well. In each of these cases, foul play is involved. In reality non-custodial, or stranger, abduction only accounts for a small number of missing persons cases.

Newsroom diversity may also play a part in media bias when doing stories about missing persons. As journalists, we tend to write about what we know, or what we can identify with. The majority of newsrooms across the country are predominately white. Minorities make up about 13% of newsrooms currently, according to the annual report submitted by the American Society of News Editors. Roy Peter Clark, vice president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, told MSNBC there is “this perverted, racist view of the world. White is good; black is bad. Blonde is good; dark is bad. Young is good; old is bad. And I think we can find versions of this story going back to the tabloid wars of more than a hundred years ago.”

One particular article I found on compared two cases in Columbia, South Carolina. Dail Dinwiddie, a 23-year-old graduate student at the University of South Carolina, disappeared from a bar near campus on September 24, 1992. Nine years later, Shelton Sanders, the 25-year-old son of an influential county magistrate, disappeared without a trace. Sanders was also a student at the same school. The Sumter Item, a local newspaper, was the only one to write about his case. After he went missing, numerous full-length articles about Dail Dinwiddie appeared in the largest newspaper in South Carolina, The State. Her case was considered a cold case, with the assumption that she was the victim of foul play. Both were students from the same area. The biggest difference: Dinwiddie was an attractive, blonde, white woman. Sanders was a black male. Dinwiddie’s case also received national attention during those years, including pieces on NPR.

The reality is that a missing person draws in an audience. If it’s popular among viewers or readers, then the case for newsworthiness can be argued. But the sheer number of missing persons could keep a newsroom busy reporting on nothing more than the thousands of missing people in the country.

In the case of Natalee Holloway, her face became an inescapable image. A quick Internet search using Google brings more than 400,000 results. Tamika Huston, who went missing at the same time, made national news due to the controversy about “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” Her body was later found, but an Internet search fetches only 18,000 results. She was African American.

I scanned and reviewed articles online, both from national news organizations and local media outlets as well. While reading, I made notes of the subject’s race, socio-economic status, and any bias that may have appeared in the report. I learned through trial and error that my search criteria had to be more detailed than just “missing person.” I made an effort to ensure that I looked at a wide range of missing person reports, not just missing adults. I included those of missing women, men, and children. In some cases, there were reports that including an adult and juvenile. My goal was to establish missing white women receive more national attention than racial minorities. I also wanted to show that reporting trends do not match the statistics reported by the FBI.

It is estimated that in 2010, more than one million people will be registered as missing with law enforcement agencies. Many of those reported missing, especially juveniles, will be found. Slightly more than 100,000 cases will be listed as active, with only 10% of people listed as missing located. The subsets of the missing include a staggering number of minorities. While the media has no set criteria in place when deciding to broadcast or print stories on the missing, some will eventually make it to national headlines. The majority of those will be white females. A blog hosted by WordPress, called Black and Missing, aims to promote those minorities who may not make the radar of national news organizations.
Kym Pasqualini, president of the National Center for Missing Adults said, “We’d like to see a little more diversity in reporting because we have cases that never make the front page of the local newspaper, let alone the national media. All parents are going through the same thing, no matter how much attention their case gets.”
In 2006, the operating budget for the NCMA was cut to less than $150,000, while the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received about $35 million. Pasqualini was continuing to work, without pay, as late as 2009.

The reauthorization of Kristen’s Act was introduced to Congress in 2005, but has never been passed. While missing persons still attract attention from news outlets, the government does not show the same interest for missing persons.
The issue of whether or not a missing person is actually newsworthy is still to be decided. The majority of news organizations, including national and local, do not have a system in place to decide whether or not it should become a story. I feel that setting up some sort of criteria for reporting on missing persons is necessary. A standard of value would need to be established first, to decide if the story has any value to the targeted audience. Racial equality would also be necessary to maintain a balance and eliminate any racial bias.
Racial bias may not be the only factor in determining whether or not a case receives national, or even local, media attention. Other factors could include the demographics of the news outlet, social status of the missing person, and physical attractiveness. Media coverage of missing persons could be an indication of other problems not seen by the eye, such as the underlying or subconscious racial biases. Even current events could have an affect. Slower news days may allow for more reporting on a missing person, but around September 11, 2001, news was dominated by the terrorist attacks.

Dan Shelly, chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) says, “to the extent that we as an industry have created a perception in some that we’re ignoring missing-person cases involving men or people of certain ethnicities, it’s unfortunate. The more diverse our work forces are and newsrooms are, the greater the chances our stories will truly reflect our communities.”

Tragedy doesn’t see race, class, or physical appearance. It is able to transcend boundaries that we, as journalists, have a difficult time doing. A quick look at the profiles of missing adults on confirms this. They are old and young. Some are attractive, some are not. Some of these people were professionals, some working class, and even those who had no job. All races and ethnicities are represented though. Media stories about missing persons tend to focus much attention on few cases, which overshadows the staggering number of missing persons cases in the U.S.