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HBO's 'Black and Missing' offers an antidote to Missing White Woman Syndrome

Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, posts a flier featuring a missing girl.
Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, posts a flier featuring a missing girl.

It may be one of the saddest truisms of modern media: Attractive white women get news coverage when they go missing.

But missing women of color often get media coverage only when people notice how much attention everyone is paying to the white women.

That dynamic jumps from the screen during HBO's newest documentary series Black and Missing, crafted by multiple Emmy winner Geeta Gandbhir and longtime journalist/author/activist Soledad O'Brien. Presented in four parts over two days, the docuseries focuses on The Black and Missing Foundation, Inc., a Maryland-based non-profit founded by two powerful Black women dedicated to searching for missing people of color when police and the media fall short.

Viewers meet co-founders Derrica Wilson, a former police officer in Virginia (she was the first Black female police officer in the city of Falls Church) and Natalie Wilson, a public relations expert. They're also sisters-in-law — two tenacious women whose skills and experience complement each other in their crusade to bring more attention to missing non-white people.

Derrica Wilson and Natalie Wilson, co-founders of The Black and Missing Foundation
Derrica Wilson and Natalie Wilson, co-founders of The Black and Missing Foundation

Derrica speaks the language of law enforcement, pushing reluctant police departments to take on cases too often shrugged off as someone running away from their life. Natalie urges media outlets to pay attention, coaching the family and friends of the missing on how to garner attention for their loved ones – knowing that publicity can bring the kind of pressure that also convinces law enforcement to devote additional resources to outstanding cases.

Missing poster for Keeshae Jacobs.
Missing poster for Keeshae Jacobs.

Natalie is also a repository for statistics, which she drops throughout the docuseries, pointing out how starkly different missing persons cases involving people of color are treated.

According to Natalie, 40 percent of the about 600,000 people who went missing in 2019 were people of color— most of them Black. She also notes Black people's cases take four times longer to resolve, with the extra time making investigations more difficult.

"The majority of these [people of color who go missing] are Black, but if you ask anyone to name three missing African Americans, I guarantee you they will come up short," Natalie says in the series, well aware of how continuous coverage burned the names of white women like Gabby Petito, Natalee Holloway, Elizabeth Smart and JonBenét Ramsey into the minds of regular news consumers.

Forcing the world to see those long ignored

The docuseries reveals the tough, ground-level work required to spread word about these cases – showing Natalie, Derrica and their volunteers posting flyers, walking through neighborhoods, counseling families and building online platforms. Alongside that work, the series tells the story of notable cases the group has worked on — including the disappearance of Pam Butler, sister to one of the group's most stalwart volunteers, Derrick Butler.

Butler's sister Pam vanished in 2009. The story of how he persisted in pushing police to investigate her disappearance, while also helping the Black and Missing Foundation aid other families, stretches across several episodes and proves how compelling these tales can be for media outlets, if they take the time to explore them.

The docuseries also does a good job of explaining how well-established dynamics in race, society and policing often impede efforts to gain attention for non-white people who go missing. Of course, there's an exploration of "Missing White Woman Syndrome" – a phrasecredited to departed PBS anchor Gwen Ifill, who described the media feeding frenzy when attractive, middle class-looking white women suddenly disappear.

But the series also examines how police and society may assume that it isn't so unusual for Black people to meet with foul play, so it isn't defined as "news" or seen as an important emergency when such a thing happens. Or how police may prematurely end investigations by assuming a missing person of color has run away, at a time when every moment of effort counts.

"Who has the right to sign the death warrant of a kid by saying, 'Runaway. Forget about it'?" says John Walsh, longtime host of America's Most Wanted, who was interviewed for the docuseries.

And given that Black women are more likely to be victims of abuse but less likely to attract sustained attentionfrom law enforcement or media, you have the makings of a horrific dynamic.

Tips to curb 'Missing White Women Syndrome'

As a journalist, watching this series left me sad, angry and stuck asking one, nagging question: If everyone knows this dynamic of underreporting on missing people of color is real, then why aren't news outlets everywhere doing more to change it?

So I reached out to O'Brien for a list of the things she and her team believed media outlets could do right now to help solve these problems of underrepresentation and under coverage. (One idea I had: local TV stations could just spend just one minute at the end of their newscasts highlighting missing people of color from their area).

"Newsrooms have these concepts about what will sell [white viewers] and what won't. And so many of those concepts are just b---s---," says the famously outspoken O'Brien. "If they decided, starting next week, that these stories are important, media outlets could begin covering them right away."

Here are a few tips from O'Brien and her staff:

Just cover the stories. If news outlets say that missing people of color matter, they can prove it – by covering disappearances and search efforts, without excuses, when they happen.

Highlight missing people who are not considered "attractive" or may have complicated personal histories. Time to unlearn the habit of focusing most on pretty people with telegenic faces, or victims with relatively spotless personal histories. Life is complex and news coverage should communicate that.

Spend less time covering one person. Take the hours devoted to digging into one, buzzy disappearance – like Gabby Pettito – and use some of those resources to instead highlight other people who are missing and have lower profiles.

Develop ongoing connections with groups in non-white communities. Too many mainstream news outlets have so few connections in Black and brown neighborhoods, they don't know when people there go missing in the first place. Time to connect with those communities so that they trust mainstream outlets with the news when someone has gone missing.

Don't pretend coverage decisions don't create news. Some media managers who insist they only cover the news and don't make it are ignoring how an outlet — especially a big, mainstream news platform — can inspire coverage from competitors by focusing on a specific issue themselves.

If these stories seem uninteresting, consider that it may be the storyteller's fault. Journalists who are disconnected from communities of color may not be passionate about telling their stories. Doesn't mean the stories aren't worth covering.

Recognize that challenging traditional coverage strategies is the entire point of newsroom diversity. Lots of news outlets proclaim the value of ethnic and cultural diversity in newsrooms, but fail to understand that such diversity should be followed by serious challenges to traditional, white-centered coverage strategies. In the end, adding perspectives to change coverage is kind of the point.

When missing people of color get coverage, be careful with the words and pictures used. Audiences are used to taking cues from the framing of stories to signal whether the subject deserves their sympathy, attention or aid. So the type of photos, facts and phrases used in the story should be fair as possible, to encourage the fairest reaction possible from the community.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.