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Not only Natalee is missing

Is the media inattention to missing women who aren't white due to deliberate racism or unconscious bias?

August 05, 2005|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

As one of America's new breed of media critics, Philadelphia blogger Richard Blair watched for weeks as the media devoted intense coverage to the story of the May 30 disappearance of Natalee Holloway while on a high school graduation trip to Aruba.

Then, on July 18, another young woman went missing, this one in his hometown. Photos of LaToyia Figueroa, 24, show the kind of smiling, attractive young woman whose disappearance has become a staple of television news coverage, particularly cable news, in recent years.

Except for one thing, a growing chorus of critics say: Figueroa, five months pregnant and the mother of a 7-year-old, comes from a lower-income black family, while the missing women regularly portrayed on television are overwhelmingly white. Her frustrated family had resorted to picketing on a busy street corner to draw attention to her disappearance when Blair and other Philadelphia bloggers took up Figueroa's case.

"Certainly Natalee Holloway's story is tragic in its own right," Blair said. "But what makes it more newsworthy than a five-month pregnant mother?"

"I think this is part of a larger discussion: Who's news, who's newsworthy, and who's making these decisions," Blair said. "I think race is a factor, as well as economic status."

Criticism of the media disparity has increased with the growth of the news genre focusing on missing women. While the media seem to focus on a parade of attractive disappeared white women -- from Laci Peterson and Chandra Levy to "runaway bride" Jennifer Wilbanks, the scores of missing black and Latina women garner little or no national attention, critics say.

The decapitated body of Evelyn Hernandez, 24, who was nine months pregnant, was discovered in the San Francisco Bay a few months before Peterson, but she did not touch off a firestorm of coverage. Nor did the disappearance of Ardena Carter, 23, a pregnant black graduate student who was last seen alive on her way to the library in Georgia in 2003. The remains of Carter and her unborn child turned up in the woods two months later.

"I don't think a media director is sitting around saying, 'Hey, there's this black woman in Philadelphia and she disappeared and we don't care,' " said Todd Boyd, USC professor of critical studies. "It's an unconscious decision about who matters and who doesn't.

"In general, there is an assumption that crime is such a part of black and Latino culture, that these things happen all the time," Boyd said. "In many people's minds it's regarded as being commonplace and not that big a deal."

Mark Effron, vice president of MSNBC News Daytime Programming, disagrees. Effron said the stories of missing women typically bubble up from local network affiliates who are covering the stories based on the public outcry they generate in their home communities.

"It's not like there's a kind of cabal where MSNBC and CNN and Fox get together and say, 'Boy, this is a good one. That's not a good one,' " he said. "Usually, there's an involved family that tends to be sophisticated in how to use the media.

"I'm not disputing numbers. What I'm telling you is that we have never, ever, ever turned down a story based on race or any of those factors."

This week, he said, the network has devoted daily coverage to Figueroa's disappearance.

However, he said, since the controversy began, "we have had discussions with our staff, [saying] 'Let's just make sure. I know we're not doing anything purposely or maliciously or based on any kind of racial or age profiling, but let's just make sure,' " he said.

Concern over lack of attention to some cases is not just an issue of fairness. Early coverage of abductions can be crucial to finding the victims alive -- a factor that the Philadelphia blogger said promoted his campaign.

"I have a daughter that's not much younger than LaToyia," said Blair, who posted the news on his blog, . "In this kind of thing, every minute's crucial."

To some analysts, this gets to the heart of the media's failure to fulfill its public service duty in the case of many missing minority women.

In California, for example, nearly 7,500 Latinas are missing -- almost double the number of white women -- but they are far less likely to receive attention.

The disparity even extends to abducted children, the critics say. While the sexual assault and murder of JonBenet Ramsey in her Boulder, Colo., home made her a nationally known symbol of a parent's worst fears, no corresponding black girl has become a household name, says author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson.

"When you raise the issue, people say, 'This is a tragedy and we should do more,' " Hutchinson said. "But it only lasts a hot minute. It doesn't leave any lasting imprint in the newsrooms."

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