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What's Missing From Television Coverage of Missing Persons?

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TV One's "Find Our Missing" debuted Wednesday night. The show aims to highlight blacks and other people of color who go missing, but who have not received the intense national attention that white, often blond and pretty, females get. The phenomenon, known as "Missing White Woman Syndrome," is particularly noticeable at the television network news level. Think about it. Who hasn't heard names such as Natalee Holloway, Caylee Anthony, Robyn Gardner, Elizabeth Smart or Jaycee Duggard?

Yet other names of African American females such as Yasmin Acree (missing since 2008), Diamond and Tionda Bradley (missing since 2001) and Jameshia Conner (found dead in 2009 two weeks after being reported missing) are not part of the national narrative.

This past weekend the family of Yasmin Acree issued an emotional plea to Chicago area news outlets asking anyone with information to come forward. Acree has been missing for four years and would be 18 years old.

To be sure, local television does a better job of covering the initial stories of missing persons and their disappearance anniversaries, as does local and national black news media and some national cable shows such as Nancy Grace. However, national television news organizations have been remiss in their lack of regard for these cases. Networks such as ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, and Fox still carry enormous weight when it comes to shaping our thoughts and opinions about who and what is valuable.

More importantly, national news coverage keeps the story alive and provides hope that someone will recognize the victim, as was the case for Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Duggard. Don't the families of Acree, the Bradley sisters and other people of color deserve that same hope?

While the ultimate blame lies squarely on the shoulders of national news gatekeepers, who apparently hold white females in the highest esteem, we as journalism educators can do a better job of demanding that our students are aware of this inequity and teach them why it must change.

Last fall I delivered a lecture to nearly 200 freshman journalism majors on this topic. One student offered a rationale for the disparity saying maybe the national news programs cover missing white females more because white women are their core audience and this is one way to reach them. When I showed students that 2011 federal census statistics indicate black men are the most likely to be homicide victims with a rate of 40.6 per 100,000, versus 6.6 per 100,000 for black women, 5.4 per 100,000 for white men and lastly, 1.9 per 100,000 for white women, another student offered a different reason. (Note: this data has changed slightly for 2012.) Because white women are the least likely to become homicide victims, then the networks and cable news are covering the unusual. It's journalism's historical definition that news is "man bites dog" not "dog bites man."

While both these reasons have some validity, a bigger truth is that when the lives of black women, other women of color and all men are devalued in national news, it not only leaves a void, but it is blatantly unfair and unbalanced. Nor does the practice follow the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) code of ethics to "resist distortions that obscure the importance of events."

Simply put, most network news does not reflect the truth when it comes to missing people and it must do a better job or risk losing more viewers. The 2011 FBI statistics for missing persons show black women account for about 34 percent of all reports of missing females, even though they make up only about 13 percent of the U.S. female population. White women (this category includes Hispanic/Latino women who identify as white) account for about 60 percent, Asian American women account for 2 percent, Native American women, 1.5 percent and the race of 2.5 percent is unknown.

Frankly, I am tired of tuning in to the morning news shows only to see extended coverage of missing females who do not look like me. So from now on, I will be watching or recording TV One's "Find Our Missing" on Wednesday nights with great gratitude. The cable network, which is aimed at African Americans, is taking advantage of great coverage chasm. Finally, someone thought I was important to be part of the national discourse.

This week I lectured to a group of graduate journalism students on the "Missing White Woman Syndrome." They listened attentively, but I know they will need to be repeatedly reminded how the practice of making one group invisible contributes to the persistent stereotype that black women are not worthy to be held in as high regard as white women.

This notion had dogged the U.S. and other parts of the world since the first black female was forced into slavery. In 1892, pioneer black journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, known for her anti-lynching campaign, wrote about her rebuttal to a white-owned South Carolina publication that wrote: "It is not the same thing for a white man to assault a colored woman as for a colored man to assault a white woman, because the colored women had no finer feelings nor virtue to be outraged." Apparently, African American women's virtue is still on trial.

Studies show that journalism training (both in and out of the academy) has the greatest influence on shaping and changing journalists' behaviors. While I hope the current crop of news executives is not a lost cause, I am not holding my breath. Instead I am encouraging my students to watch TV One's program, watch national news and make comparisons.

We journalism educators can have the greatest impact on tomorrow by what we teach our students today. Let us not delay. The families of future missing persons of color deserve more respect and decency. Future journalists must be well informed enough to care and courageous enough to influence change.