Allynesha Austin, Charles Floyd Burns, Aaron Clemon and Nireum Crosby share a frightening circumstance. They are among the Black youth who have gone missing so far this year. Media coverage of their disappearance has been poor, at best, but most likely non-existent.
Some believe there is considerable disparity between critical media coverage of white missing persons versus for Black ones.
Ava Greenwell, a journalism professor at Northwestern University and former television reporter agrees that coverage of minority missing persons is limited.
“Well, the first thing I would say is you have to look at who the managers are and who is determining coverage and it tends to be people who are not people of color,” Greenwell said. “Who are the managers and how do their backgrounds affect their interests?”
For families like that of missing West Side teen Yasmin Acree there was no media coverage early on and a family member told the Chicago Citizen that police squandered the opportunity to get missing persons information out about the girl, who went missing from her bedroom January, 15, 2008, during those critical hours.
“I’ve actually been trying to talk with some congressional leaders about resurrecting some old rules so that minorities can get their proper due as it relates to media coverage,” Rev. Ira Acree said about his cousin going missing. “I’m very disappointed that at the beginning stages of the case no coverage was given (to Yasmin’s disappearance). It almost seems as if the media racially profiled her and just said ‘oh, she’s just a fast little urban inner-city girl, she’ll be all right.’”
He added that the disparity in missing Black people getting coverage is due to a lack of minority ownership of media outlets. He doesn’t feel that the lack of coverage is intentional but more a reflection of ethnic and racial groups having a “natural affinity for their own group.”
The case of two missing Bronzeville sisters, however, garnered media attention right away.
Diamond and Tionda Bradley went missing July 6, 2001. Friday will mark the 11th anniversary of their disappearance. The then-3-year-old and 10-year-old sisters, respectively, garnered national media attention when they vanished but still, they have not been found. According to the FBI, the girls’ mother found a note written by Tionda stating that the two girls were going to the store and playground. However, an extensive search of the area and surrounding neighborhood yielded negative results.
Over the years, Shelia Bradley-Smith, the Bradley girls’ great- aunt has become an outspoken advocate for missing persons. She has an Internet radio show (www.sheliashow.com) dedicated to spreading awareness and information on missing persons.
Although her nieces’ case received steady coverage from news outlets, it is the lack of media attention to missing persons of color that inspired the Bradley-Smith to start her internet radio show. She cites that media managers tend to only give coverage to “the blond haired blue eyed child.” But, Bradley-Smith wants media gatekeepers to know regardless of the race of a missing person, their families all feel the same pain.
“Those of us with missing persons –we don’t see color, we see only pain and we live that pain,” she said. “That was my inspiration behind starting ‘The Shelia Show’ because it gives me the opportunity to interview everyone.”
Bradley-Smith told the Chicago Citizen that her family has not coped with the fact that Diamond and Tionda are still missing.
“There are no coping skills, no type of counseling or any solace that could change the way we’re all feeling,” she said. “We’re just learning to live with it until something happens.”
Hoping that other families never experience the loss of a missing person, Bradley-Smith says offers advice for those that do. For instance, she encourages families to inform law enforcement immediately if their loved one becomes missing.
“It doesn’t matter if it was five seconds or five minutes get the police involved immediately and don’t let different police departments tell you that you have to wait a certain time period in order to report a person missing,” Bradley-Smith said. “That’s not true. Even if they have to speak to the lieutenant of the station demand that someone is looking.”
Smith also advises that while posting missing flyers online are helpful, it’s important for family to get out and canvass the area their loved one was last seen.
“Missing White Woman Syndrome”
“Missing white woman syndrome” is an expression used by some media and social critics to describe the disproportionate degree of coverage in television, radio, newspaper and magazine reporting of an adversity, most often a missing person case, involving a young, white, upper-middle class (frequently blonde) woman or girl. This degree of coverage is usually contrasted with cases concerning a missing male, or missing females of other ethnicities, socioeconomic classes or physical attractiveness.
Cited instances of the missing white woman syndrome include the cases of Natalee Holloway and Laci Peterson.
To change the way media covers missing persons of color, Greenwell says that first changes must be made in media management
Greenwell believes the disparity in the coverage of missing persons of color is done inadvertently by those who make news decisions.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s intentional, in many ways it’s very subconscious but unfortunately a lot of what we do subconsciously ends up being very biased in terms of the coverage and how it’s reflected,” she said.
Greenwell says the first thing that can be done is getting more people of color in news management positions.
“First we have to get more people of color in those management positions so they that can make those decisions, “ she said. “Again by saying that I’m assuming that those people of color are going to be sensitive to these issues. Sometimes you can get people of color into those positions and nothing changes for various reasons. It could be for fear of offending their viewers, it could be for fear of if they do something different than what their white predecessors have done that they will be penalized for that.”
Despite the harrowing tales of missing persons, Jason Moran, a detective with the Cook County Sheriff’s Police says his experience working missing cases have been generally positive.
“When you have a missing kid, missing adult, or missing senior and you’re able to locate them and are able to return them back to the family it’s always a very positive experience,” Moran said. “It’s only in the rarer cases where it’s very hard. If you can’t find them or they’re deceased and you’re looking the family in the eye that’s very hard.”
Moran says one of the most important aspects of a missing persons investigation is taking action immediately.
He also wants the public to know there isn’t a time limit on reporting a missing person citing that before families had to wait hours or 72 hours before the police would take a report.
Moran has worked a number of juvenile missing persons cases and says it’s important for parents and guardians to have their child’s phone number and the phone’s serial number and subscriber information. Because of today’s technological prowess, law enforcement officials are able to find missing persons via their cellphone records.
Black and Missing Foundation, Inc.
In 2008, Natalie and Derrica Wilson, sisters-in-law decided to start a foundation to help locate and spread awareness for missing persons of color. A few years later, Black and Missing Foundation, Inc. (www.blackandmissinginc.com) is a nationally recognized hub for information on Black missing.
Natalie is a public relations director and Derrica is a law enforcement official.
“We channeled our professions and created an organization so we could help these families from A to Z in the event that their loved one goes missing,” Derrica said.
The Black and Missing Foundation created a checklist of what to do when a person becomes missing and they have established an anonymous tip line.
Natalie says that the media plays a critical part in bringing awareness to missing individuals.
“If the media profiles these missing individuals it greaters the chance of them being found,” she said. “It also forces law enforcement to add additional resources to the case.”
People become missing for a variety of reasons, according to the Wilsons.
“There could be a family abduction, non-custodial parents takes the child. (Also), sex-trafficking is a big issue in the United States,” Natalie said. “These kids are being snatched up and they are being sold to sex slavery. There are also kids that are running away as well—and there are some people who are missing for unknown reasons.”
Overall, here’s what the public should remember. Police say that the first 24 to 48 hours of a person’s disappearance are the most critical and every hour after that decreases the chances of a positive outcome. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children cites a statistic from the 2006 study, Case Management for Missing Children Homicide: Report II, which indicates that 76.2 percent of abducted children are killed within the first three hours of being taken.
The U.S. Department of Justice reports that nearly 800,000 children younger than 18 are missing each year. That is an average of 2,185 children reported missing each day.
By Thelma Sardin
Rhonda Gillespie contributed to this report.