The Viral Story About Missing Black And Brown Girls In D.C. Reveals A Huge Media Blindspot

Women's Outlets Explain How These Stories Are Significantly And Routinely Undercovered

››› ››› PAM VOGEL

A social media post about missing black and brown girls in the Washington, D.C., area went viral, but the numbers it cited were incorrect. Women’s outlets -- primarily those geared toward young, black and brown audiences -- took the lead in explaining the underlying reality about media coverage of missing children that made the post so believable.

Viral Social Media Post Falsely Claimed 14 Black And Latina Girls Went Missing In The Washington, D.C., Area In 24 Hours

BuzzFeed: Viral Post “Inaccurately Claimed 14 Girls Went Missing In DC In 24 Hours.” BuzzFeed News reported that the claims made in a viral Instagram post were inaccurate, explaining that public outcry about the missing girls may have been spurred by the D.C. police’s recently increased use of social media to publicize missing persons cases. BuzzFeed also explained that some of the photos used in the post were from earlier in the year, and that fewer missing persons had been reported in 2017 than in recent years. From BuzzFeed News:

Police have tweeted 20 missing person flyers since March 19 (10 of which are for minors), which have led many to believe the number of missing persons has dramatically increased — however, DC police told NBC Washington this is not true.

"We've just been posting them on social media more often," Rachel Reid, a spokesperson for the DC Metro Police Department, said.

The number of missing person reports in DC has actually decreased in 2017 compared with recent years.

[...]

Even so, the number of black people missing across the US is staggeringly disproportional — though that's not a new phenomenon. [BuzzFeed, 3/24/17]

Snopes: “Although There Are Still A Number Of Missing Teenagers In The D.C. Area, Local Police Refuted Claims Of A Mass Disappearance Of Girls There.” Fact-checking site Snopes.com declared the viral post a “mixture” of truth and fiction. It wrote that the D.C. police department had explained there was not a recent uptick in missing black and Latina girls in the area nor of 14 teenagers going missing within a 24-hour period, but that there were still 22 open cases involving missing teens in Washington, D.C., as of March 22, and 13 open cases as of March 27. It also explained the connections between this inaccurate social media post and a more accurate, though now outdated, viral tweet about the same topic. Snopes also noted that Metropolitan Police Department official Chanel Dickerson was trying to draw more attention to the cases (emphasis added):

However, Chanel Dickerson, who heads the department’s Youth and Family Services division, said that she is posting more reports of missing teens of color online in order to draw attention to their cases:

I’m not trying to minimize that other people are missing. But they look like me. I just want to make sure that every investigation [is] focused on every child the same way, [that] we give the same exposure to everyone, regardless of your race or where you live. [Snopes.com, 3/24/17]

Women’s Outlets Explain The Underlying -- And Very Real -- Problem Highlighted By The Viral Post

Essence Special Report: “How D.C.’s Disappearing Girls Highlight The Nation’s Black And Missing Problem.” Essence, which posted several articles about the viral post and updates from local authorities, published a report telling the stories of specific missing persons cases involving black teen girls across the country. Reporter Donna M. Owens detailed the differences in media coverage between missing black girls and their white counterparts, and included quotes from experts about the dangers young black women face. From the March 24 report: 

Across America, thousands of Black women, girls and gender non-conforming individuals are among the missing. They may be snatched by strangers, or abducted by family members. Some are mentally ill or injured. Still others are runaways.

[...]

[The viral] tweets generated significant public attention, what with photos of the missing that were at times haunting, disquieting, or strikingly normal. Brief descriptions hinted at their lives.

There was the 13-year-old Black girl with a wide smile and eyeglasses, whose outfit included pink sneakers. A 15-year-old Black girl with brown hair and brown eyes who had on her school uniform. “Have you seen her?” the posts asked.

According to the latest FBI data, as of February 2017, there are a total of 13,591 active missing person records for African American women stored in its National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Of that total, 8,042 were of the ages of 18 and under; 1,419 were between the ages of 19 to 21.

The numbers trouble Natalie Wilson, 47, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, Inc., (BAM FI), a nonprofit she launched with her sister-in-law, Derrica Wilson, 38, back in 2008.

“Black women and girls are going missing and it’s not just in Washington D.C. It’s happening in Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, Atlanta and other urban areas around the country,” she said. [Essence, 3/24/17, 3/24/17, 3/17/17, 3/14/17

Latina: D.C.’s “Black And Brown Residents Are Concerned (And Vexed)” That Media Aren’t Covering Missing Youth Cases Involving Children From Their Communities. Though Latina’s Raquel Reichard offered context to the viral post by talking to local authorities, she also underscored that statistics from D.C. officials haven’t “relaxed communities of color … and for good reason.” From the March 23 article:

According to officials, 95 percent of the children who have gone missing in 2017 have been located. In fact, some of the 10 teenagers who vanished this month have also been found in the last few days – but that hasn’t relaxed communities of color in the D.C.-Maryland-Northern Virginia (DMV) Area, and for good reason.

Black and brown residents are concerned (and vexed) that while their children account for the majority of missing youth cases they remain underrepresented in media reporting around the issue, a phenomenon termed by the late Afro-Latina PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill as "missing white woman syndrome."

This explains the absence of coverage for impoverished youth of color victims, like Maylin Reynoso, the young Dominican woman who disappeared and was later found dead in the Bronx, New York last year, and the around-the-clock reporting of middle-class white women who go missing, like 30-year-old jogger Karina Vetrano, who was beaten, raped and killed in Queens, New York in 2016 as well. [Latina, 3/23/17]

Teen Vogue: “It Remains Essential For People To Advocate For Missing Young People Of Color.” While analyzing the initial tweet and subsequent coverage of the issue, De Elizabeth wrote in Teen Vogue that the false statistics still highlighted a real trend in how missing black and Latina girls are covered in media. From the March 25 article:

The bottom line is that it remains essential for people to advocate for missing young people of color; studies have shown that 36.7% of all missing persons under the age of 17 are black. And, as [Shaun] King points out in his article, "the stories of young black girls and women who are missing don't get the Elizabeth Smart or Natalee Holloway treatment." This makes online awareness that much more essential – and effective.

But, as with anything you'd share on the internet, it's important to make sure that what you're sharing is, in fact, true. As with fake news, it's always a good idea to investigate the source of a photo, article, or infographic before you hit retweet. After all, spreading false information isn't going to help anyone, no matter how good your intentions might be.

Despite the confusion that the viral false image might have caused on social media, there is a cause for concern with regard to the situation in Washington, D.C. The Metropolitan Police Department has stated that there's been 501 reported cases of missing children in D.C. just in 2017 alone, with 22 cases still open. [Teen Vogue, 3/25/17]

Bustle: “The Problem Is That When Those [Missing] Children Are African-American Or Latinx, Their Disappearances Don’t Gain Adequate Media Coverage.” Bustle’s associate news editor, Hillary E. Crawford, explained to readers “Why You Should Pay Attention To DC’s Missing Girls If You Attended The Women’s March.” Crawford reported that the viral post was spurred by local authorities’ decision to post more missing persons cases on social media, but she also noted  the long-term dearth of media coverage around those cases involving black and Hispanic children. From the March 24 article:

According to the Associated Press, over 500 D.C. children went missing in the first three months of 2017. However, according to D.C. Metropolitan Police spokeswoman Rachel Reid, there hasn't necessarily been an increase in missing persons in the district. Instead, the public is simply noticing more because the police department is posting missing girls' photos on social media. In other words, these missing persons are finally being realized.

The problem is that when those children are African-American or Latinx, their disappearances don't gain adequate media coverage.

[...]

Helping to draw even more attention to D.C.'s missing girls isn't unlike fighting for women's rights, abortion access, racial equality, or LGBT rights — all of which were intensely promoted by the Women's March. When it comes down to it, it's about representation. [Bustle, 3/24/17]

Refinery29: “The Disconnect In How The Media Reports About The Violent Crimes Against White Women Versus Women Of Color Is Incredibly Problematic.” Refinery29’s Andrea Gonzalez-Ramirez also reported that coverage of missing persons cases involving white women far outpaced those cases of black and Latina women. From the March 15 article, which was also later updated to provide more information:

Cases in which young, attractive white women from middle- or upper-class households go missing tend to get much more media attention than instances where women of color disappear — especially if they are from low-income families. The late PBS reporter Gwen Iffil (sic) coined the term "missing white woman syndrome" to describe this phenomenon.

Think of all the media coverage about the case of Karina Vetrano, the 30-year-old jogger who was brutally beaten, raped, and killed in Queens, NY, last August. Now think of Marilyn Reynoso, the 20-year-old Latina from the Bronx, NY, who disappeared in late July, and whose body was found about a week later. It's likely that you have not heard about Reynoso, even though her disappearance and murder occurred at around the same time as Vetrano's, because it wasn't widely publicized.

The disconnect in how the media reports about the violent crimes against white women versus women of color is incredibly problematic, particularly when you consider that about 40% of all the missing people in the U.S. are people of color, according to the figures offered to the Post by Derrica Wilson, co-founder of the Black & Missing Foundation. [Refinery29, 3/15/17]

Research Shows "Missing White Woman Syndrome" Is Real, Hurts Communities Of Color

Black & Missing Foundation: 37 Percent Of Individuals Reported Missing In 2016 Were Persons Of Color. The Black & Missing Foundation, which aims to draw more attention to missing persons cases involving people of color, highlighted FBI statistics showing that at least 37 percent of individuals reported missing in the U.S. in 2016 were minorities. Because of the way the federal government gathers race/ethnicity data, this figure does not include some Hispanic individuals who are categorized as white -- Hispanic is not a “race” option in the federal FBI data -- or as members of other ethnicity groups. [Black & Missing Foundation, accessed 3/27/17; FBI.gov, accessed 3/27/17]

Journalism Center On Children & Families: “Cases Involving Kids Who Aren’t Privileged, White And Conventionally Attractive Go Largely Unreported.” According to an article from the University of Maryland’s Journalism Center on Children & Families, media coverage for missing black and brown kids is so low, it spurred the creation of a separate alert system designed for children of color: “Rilya alerts.” Media experts said significant racial and class disparities in coverage of missing children cases reinforce social privilege. From the article (emphasis added):

We've all heard of Amber alerts. But Rilya alerts? Probably not.

As with the Amber system, children whose disappearances are announced under the Rilya system must be 17 or under, reported missing to law enforcement and believed to be in danger. Rilya alerts — named in honor of Rilya Wilson, who disappeared unnoticed from Florida's foster care system at age 4 — also have one more criterion: they're only for children of color.

The need for an extra alert system for racial minorities stems largely from a phenomenon known as “Missing White Girl Syndrome" — a tendency by the news media to cover the murders and abductions of affluent or middle-class white girls far more than those of boys, poor kids and kids of color, especially African-Americans. An estimated 42 percent of missing children are black.

[...]

If you doubt the need for Rilya alerts, think about how many white kids you can name who've gone missing and turned up dead, then ask yourself the same question about racial minorities who've disappeared under similar circumstances. Polly Klaas, Elizabeth Smart and JonBenet Ramsey became household names after their cases made headlines for months, even years. Their stories, like others that tend to fascinate the news media, involved cute or pretty privileged girls whose cases centered on whodunit mysteries. Typically, such stories feature adorable photos or videos that are aired over and over again. As a general rule, kids whose cases get the most coverage come from families with connections capable of snagging media attention when it most counts — in the hours after an abduction or murder — and then keeping the story in the headlines.

Meanwhile, cases involving kids who aren't privileged, white and conventionally attractive go largely unreported. Rilya Wilson's is a case in point. The 4-year-old who was born into poverty and removed from her mother's custody went missing for eight months before anyone realized she was gone, according to Peas in Their Pods, the Georgia-based group that set up the national alert system in her name. [Journalism Center on Children & Families, accessed 3/27/17]

Study: Lack Of Newsroom Diversity And Media Profit Models Contributed To Significant Underrepresentation Of “African American Missing Children And Female Missing Children.” A 2010 study of national media coverage of children found that black and female children were “significantly underrepresented in television news coverage.” The research, conducted by two communication studies professors, spanned coverage in 2005, 2006, and 2007, and identified structural problems within national news media outlets as causes of the disparity:

When the proportions of race and gender from the news coverage of five national television stations between 2005 and 2007 were compared to official missing children statistics, it was found that African American missing children and female missing children were significantly underrepresented in television news cover-age. It is argued that such things as newsroom diversity, news operation routines, media ownership, and commercial motives of media contribute to the race- and gender-related media bias. [Communication Research Reports, July-September 2010]

Study: Coverage Doesn’t Improve Because Media Don’t Fully Grapple With “Missing White Woman Syndrome” In Their Own Reporting, Even Though They Recognize It. Media studies expert Carol Liebler wrote in 2010 that evidence showed mass media outlets don’t discuss their own biased reporting habits, but that they do critique others’ coverage of crime and missing persons cases, and they even identify racism “as the primary cause of the Missing White Woman Syndrome.” Yet “class, age, and appearance are not investigated in any depth, and more subtle aspects of the phenomenon go unexplored.” Because members of the media are largely unwilling to critique their own roles in the phenomenon, or to explore the other disparities in coverage when black and Latina women are victims of crimes, Liebler concluded “This lack of self-critique promises little for transformative change.” [Communications, Culture & Critique, 2010

Image created by Dayanita Ramesh. 

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