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Investigation into racial disparities in missing persons news coverage

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Posted at 5:00 AM, Nov 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-08 18:35:44-05

HAMPTON, Va. – People of color making up roughly 40 percent of missing persons cases, but the casesthat become household names are usually white women, according to an analysis of news coverage in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

“This same type of heightened awareness should be continued for everyone,” said Joseph Petito during a national news conference about the search for his daughter, Gabby. Her disappearance attracted national news coverage and a massive law enforcement response, prompting Black and brown families to ask why they don’t see the same urgency for their missing loved ones.

“No one, not one person can name a missing black or brown male female or child that has garnered mainstream media,” said Derrica Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation. “It's not to dishonor any community. We just want to even the playing field.”

Wilson, a former deputy sheriff for the Arlington County Sheriff’s Department in Virginia, said law enforcement and news organizations can help level that playing field.

“The media coverage is so critical because it applies pressure to law enforcement to dedicate additional resources on cases, especially in the minority community that they would have pretty much failed to do otherwise,” Wilson said.

A News 3 investigation reveals the downfall comes down to diversity.

The Pew Research Center’s analysis of newsrooms founds 77 percent of newsroom employees are white.

The study “Missing White Woman Syndrome: An Empirical Analysis of Race and Gender Disparities in Online News Coverage of Missing Persons” found that Black people are “significantly underrepresented in the population of missing persons who received coverage,” even though missing people of color make up nearly 40 percent of all missing persons cases. Additionally, the analysis found white women were over represented in news coverage, accounting for more than half of missing persons coverage when they make up 30 percent of missing persons cases.

We understand that not every case is going to elevate to mainstream media, but we have to start somewhere,” said Wilson. “It takes all of us.”

The News 3 I-Team also found a lack of diversity in law enforcement, too. The Center for Policing Equity found local police departments nationwide don’t reflect the racial makeup of the communities they serve, with white officers making up nearly 70 percent of departments across the country.

The Black and Missing Foundation said those factors can lead to an assumption that missing minorities are associated with crime. Missing minority children, they foundations adds, are often classified as runaways.

“We all know that runaways are not receiving the amber alert and, quite frankly, there's really no sense of urgency,” Wilson said.

The News 3 I-Team took a closer look at laws for missing cases.

In Virginia, there is no waiting period to report someone missing, and those reports must be shared with state and national database within two hours of taking the report. Additionally, the Virginia State Police distributes the AMBER Alert for abducted children, and several other alerts including the Ashanti Alert for abducted adults, the Senior Alert, and the Autism Alert. However, the VSP does not have a unit dedicated to finding missing people, meaning it is up to each local law enforcement agency to decide how far they go to investigate each missing persons case.

News 3 dived into the different policies for the seven cities of Hampton Roads. Newport News, for example, reads “every person reported as missing will be considered at risk until significant information to the contrary is confirmed.” Virginia Beach’s policy said “if the victim is believed to be at risk, the reporting officer shall contact a supervisor who will determine the extent of the immediate action to be taken.” Suffolk’s policy, the only one that seems to address potential bias, urges their officers to “be cautious in ‘labeling’ ” cases, adding that “even if first indication suggests a ‘less urgent’ incident, officers should consider all possibilities until the case category is clearly determined.” You can also read the policies for Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake and Hampton.

The judgment call of who is deemed in danger lies in law enforcement’s hands, impacting which cases they share with news organizations, and that can allow some names and faces to fall through the cracks.

“Families are having to hire private investigators. They're having to coordinate their own search teams and even hire people when they can't get the volunteers,” said Wilson. “They’re having to create their own flyers because law enforcement’s not creating them.”

That’s where the Black and Missing Foundation helps bridge the gap. Wilson said they have helped bring closure to 400 families. The foundation also creates free flyers for families to download, highlights cases on social media, and presses law enforcement and journalists to devote more resources and airtime missing people of color.

“It takes all of us, to help us find us,” Wilson said.

To address the disparities, News 3 is launching "Have You Seen Me," an initiative to draw attention to missing persons cases, including those that may not get AMBER alerts or heightened attention from local law enforcement.