The Media, Race, Gender, and Disappearances
Media coverage of missing persons cases is skewed to favor one archetype of a ‘missing person’. Gender, race, class and attractiveness can determine whether or not a case will be covered on the nightly news. According to the Crime Report, race is the most significant factor in determining whether or not the media will be interested in covering a missing persons case. Not surprisingly, the media’s standard for a newsworthy missing person is most likely a white victim, specifically a white woman. The inconsistency in coverage of missing persons cases is so well established that it has been given an expression: “the Missing White Girl Syndrome”.
Based on FBI and census data, Blacks comprise a disproportionate amount of the missing people in the U.S. Blacks only made up about 13 percent of the overall population in 2014, but comprised 35 percent of the missing in the same year. While whites, non-Hispanic and Hispanic, make up 59.54 percent of all missing persons entries in 2014, minorities make up the almost half of all missing persons but fail to receive sufficient media coverage.
The ‘Missing White Girl Syndrome’ also encompasses class. Affluent or middle-class white girls are far more likely to be displayed on the news than poor kids and children of color. The President of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, Dori Maynard said “often the assumption is that the white girls are… innocent victims whereas with poor children or children of color, there’s some nefarious activities involved.” The disparity in media coverage has become so rampant that a new system, based on Amber Alerts, was created specifically to alert the public of disappearances of poor, minority or unnoticed children. Rilya alerts give attention to the missing children cases that would typically be overlooked by the mainstream media.
Missing Persons and Law Enforcement
The number of missing persons cases investigated excludes many people. For example, many people who are homeless, poor or uneducated may not report a missing person as frequently as an upper middle class, college educated person. The NYPD, according to the website The Missing, urges family members and loved ones to contact police immediately after someone has disappeared. A former sergeant with the NYPD stated, “There is a common myth among the public that you have to wait 24 hours before you report someone missing, but that’s not the case… The No. 1 biggest problem is that family members wait too long to report a missing persons case. You lose valuable time during those 24 hours.”
Racial bias is evident in missing persons investigations unmistakably displayed by Romona Moore’s disappearance and subsequent investigation in contrast to Svetlana Aronov’s disappearance and investigation.
Romona Moore, April 2003 | Svetlana Aronov, March 2003
Romona was a Hunter College student and a Guyanese immigrant who went missing in April 2003. The day before Romona’s disappearance was reported to New York police, she had told her mother she was going to Burger King right down the street. Ms. Moore’s mother became nervous when her daughter stayed out all night and failed to show up the following morning. Romona is described as being a shy, smart college student who refrained from partying. So when she stayed out all night forthe first time in her life, according to Ms. Moore’s mother, her family was concerned. The police were contacted that morning in order to report the disappearance; however, police refused to open an investigation due to Romona being 21, and they told Elle Carmichael, Romona’s mother, to call the precinct at 7pm if Romona had still failed to return home. Romona spend three to four days chained in the basement of an apartment a few blocks away, being raped and tortured by Troy Hendrix and Kayson Pearson until they beat her to death and dumped her body next to an Ice Cream truck in Brooklyn. Romona’s case was finally solved through an amateur investigation conducted by Moore’s family. Once police had finally begun an investigation, Romona was already dead.
A month earlier, a white woman disappeared on the Upper East Side and sparked an intense investigation. The woman, Svetlana Aronov, was 44 years old and originally from St. Petersburg, Russia. Police began a robust investigation into her disappearance almost immediately after she was reported missing. The commander of Manhattan detectives held a news conference about Aronov’s disappearance. The New York Police Department’s 19th Precinct investigated Aronov’s disappearance for months, looking into the Russian mob, a cabdriver, and even Aronov’s husband. The investigation carried on for two months until Aronov’s body was discovered washed up under a pier on May 6th. The police could not definitely determine whether or not Aronov’s death was an accident, suicide, or homicide after careful examination of Aronov’s body and personal effects.
Serial Killer Anthony Sowell, 2007-2009.
Anthony Sowell was able to kill eleven women over the course of two years, sparking a debate about whether or not Ohio police departments dedicate enough resources to missing person’s investigations. Some activists in Cleveland, Ohio have demanded that a unit within the Cleveland Police Department be dedicated solely to investigating missing people. All of Sowell’s victims were black and almost of the victims were reported missing. Many of the women had a history of drug addiction, and their families claim that because of their histories the police did not take the case seriously. Eleven remains were found throughout Sowell’s house; eleven disappearances were allowed to go uninvestigated by police, leaving eleven families heart broken.
The eleven disappearances did not make the nightly news, displaying the extreme danger of the “Missing White Girl Syndrome”. If any of these women’s disappearance had been publicized, perhaps the police would have taken the time to investigate these disappearances, and they would have discovered a rampant serial killer in Cleveland, Ohio earlier. Sowell’s victims were not white and they lacked the “innocence” favored by the media, and, therefore, they paid the ultimate price.
Media Coverage’s Profound Impact on Missing Persons Investigations
The unwillingness of the media to cover missing persons investigations of black or minority groups influences the public perception of who goes missing as well as influences the public’s desire to help the investigation; in the case of Anthony Sowell, most of Cleveland was unaware of the numerous disappearances. A nationally covered missing persons case can generate hundreds of search volunteers as well as influence when the police initiate investigations and the amount of resources that are devoted to the investigation. In the case of Romona, the media’s silence on her disappearance led to neglect by local authorities until it was too late, just as eleven women were able to disappear without sparking a major police investigation. Contrastingly, the media’s persistent coverage of Svetlana Aronov’s disappearance sparked an intense investigation that spanned two months. If the media coverage on disappearances encompasses ALL types of people who go missing then perhaps more missing persons investigations will have a better ending.
Author Tiffany Walker, Lauth Investigations International Inc.