'We Can't Do This on Our Own': How Mainstream Media Fails Missing Girls of Color

The outcry over the missing girls in Washington D.C. reveals a sobering truth: When girls and women of color go missing, their cases are far less likely to attract media attention.
March 29, 2017, 9:40pm
Photo by Gabriel Bucataru via Stocksy

Last Thursday, an Instagram post claiming that "14 Girls Have Gone Missing in DC in the Last 24 Hours" went viral. The hashtag #MissingDCGirls was born, and people in Washington and on social media wondered why more media outlets weren't reporting on the news. However, the meme turned out to be factually incorrect—according to the Metropolitan Police Department, there has never been a 24-hour period where 14 young women went missing in the district. In addition, police said there hasn't been an increase in missing persons cases; law enforcement in DC has simply increased their efforts on social media to draw attention to them.

There are currently 41 open cases of "critical missing persons," a term that refers to anyone under the age of 15 or over the age of 65, listed on the DC Metropolitan Police website. Of those 41 missing persons, nine are girls of color under the age of 18: Mayeli Fuentes-Pineda, 14, who has been missing since March 28; Osharna Pittman, 13, who has been missing since March 27; Leonna Lewis, 15, who has been missing since March 27; Shaniah Boyd, 14, who has been missing since March 18; Chantese Zimmerman, 15, who has been missing since February 16; Faith Nelson, 16, who has been missing since January 30; Ana Funes, 16, who has been missing since November 8, 2016; Derriana Hansford, 16, who has been missing since December 24, 2016; and Relisha Rudd, 8, who has been missing since April 8, 2014. DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has since announced new initiatives to address the area's missing teen problem.

Read more: How NYC Public Schools Punish Girls for Being Raped

The hype behind the missing girls of color in DC highlights an important issue: that women and girls of color receive far less media attention than white women and girls when they go missing. One study of news coverage from 2005 to 2007 found that missing African-American children and girls were significantly underrepresented in television news coverage. "This suggests that judgments of newsworthiness for missing children cases in this domain may indeed be affected by a predominantly white cultural perspective in news organizations," the authors concluded.

Mia Moody-Ramirez is a Baylor University journalism professor who co-authored a 2009 study that analyzed the differences in the way the media covers missing black and white women. She and her colleagues looked at the cases of four missing women in the mid-2000s: Laci Peterson and Lori Hackling, who were white, and Tamika Huston and LaToyia Figueroa, who were black. After one month of their disappearances, researchers found that Peterson and Hacking had, respectively, received 597 and 131 transcripts from four major news outlets. In comparison, Huston and Figueroa received five and four.

"Obviously, it is impossible to cover all missing women," she tells Broadly, "but it is tragic when one group is covered more than another group."

Obviously, it is impossible to cover all missing women, but it is tragic when one group is covered more than another group.

Moody-Ramirez believes mainstream media continue to underreport cases of missing women of color, but that social media platforms have helped to fill the void in coverage. "There are many online websites, blogs, and social media pages that highlight missing black women," she says. "This is something that we did not see prior to the early 2000s. Social media has been very important in movements to locate missing persons of color."

One such online platform is the nonprofit Black and Missing Foundation. Derrica Wilson, one of the organization's co-founders, says since Black and Missing was launched in 2008, the number of minority missing persons' cases—which includes black, Asian, and Indian people—has actually increased.

"We've come a very long way," Wilson tells Broadly, "but we still have a long way to go. We can't do this on our own. We need law enforcement, we need the media, and more importantly we need the community. Everybody's involvement is critical is finding missing persons. What we're doing is trying to even that playing field. We have partnered with a lot of media outlets to help get these stories told so we can bring about reunions and closure for families."

To illustrate the impact media can have in helping to find a missing child, she shares the story of a 16-year-old autistic girl from Baltimore, who was abducted and trafficked into DC after being lured by a sexual predator online. Thanks to the collaborative work of the Black and Missing Foundation, the media, the FBI, and an Uber driver who saw a post on social media, the girl was found and reunited with her family after a week.

"It doesn't matter what your race is," Wilson continues. "In all honesty, missing persons is not a black issue, it's not a white issue: It's an American issue. And if someone has a missing loved one, their heart bleeds the same way."

We can't do this on our own. We need law enforcement, we need the media, and more importantly we need the community.

Beyond shedding light on the media's failure to spotlight missing women and girls of color, #MissingDCGirls also served as a reminder of how society continues to undervalue these lives. In some cases, it starts as early as elementary school. A 2015 report from the African American Policy Forum, which highlighted "the educational, social, and economic factors that funnel Black girls and other girls of color onto pathways to nowhere and render their academic and professional vulnerabilities invisible," found that black girls were suspended six times as often as their white counterparts. In New York City, for example, 90 percent of all the girls subjected to expulsion during the 2011–2012 school year were black. The authors of the report called for more research to investigate why, but what evidence is available "suggests that implicit biases, stereotyping, and other cultural factors may play a role."

By the time black girls become adults, they're getting paid about 63 percent of what white men make, are disproportionately targeted by police, and are much more likely than white women to be murdered by a man.

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When the media consistently exclude coverage of missing women of color, the impact is far greater than simply ignoring the opportunity to help find someone. "Media help citizens make sense of the world around them, especially for depictions of people of different backgrounds," Moody-Ramirez explained in her study. "Media send readers and listeners hidden messages that suggest a story's importance, and ultimately people's importance within society. Therefore, the media treatment of an issue may foster the patterns of discrimination operating against women in society."

"Because the media ignore the disappearances of women of color, unattractive and older women and men," she continued, "mainstream society might deem them less valuable."