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Missing White Woman Syndrome & The Media Bias Towards Missing People of Color

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

Every single year, about 600,000 people are reported missing in America. That number comes from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons database. In 2022, roughly 34,000 of those reported actively missing were people of color. But missing people of color often don't get the same kind of intense media attention as certain cases of missing white people. My colleague Juana Summers takes it from here.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: No one has heard from missing 25-year-old Jelani Day in more than a week now, and his family is still searching for answers.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Today marks six years since Keeshae Jacobs disappeared in Richmond. She was just 21 years old at the time. Today, her mother...

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: These are just some of the people of color who have gone missing over the last few years.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Ashley Loring, who also goes by Ashley Heavyrunner, was last seen in Browning on June 8, 2017. The Bureau of Indian Affairs...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Today marks three years since 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez disappeared from a New Jersey park. And tonight, the question remains, where is Dulce?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Today marks nine years since an 8-year-old girl went missing in D.C. The search for Relisha Rudd hasn't stopped.

SUMMERS: And some of them are still missing. You might be hearing their names for the first time because their cases have not received as much national media coverage as cases involving missing white women and children.

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KEITH MORRISON: Laci Peterson - on the night before Christmas, she was gone.

SHARON ROCHA: Please, please, please let her go.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Nearly two decades later, we have new developments in the Natalee Holloway case. The prime suspect...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: The desperate search for Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old who vanished on a cross-country trip with her boyfriend. Police now...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: It seems the nation is searching for Gabby Petito, but her boyfriend...

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GWEN IFILL: Why not the same media attention when people of color go missing? Well, the answer actually has a name - missing white woman syndrome.

SUMMERS: That phrase was coined by the journalist Gwen Ifill, who died back in 2016. It refers to the media's fascination with covering missing or otherwise endangered white women and the media's seeming disinterest in covering the disappearances of people of color.

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IFILL: If there's a missing white woman, we're going to cover that every day.

SUMMERS: There are various studies that back up the notion that people of color who go missing don't get featured in the news as much. The Columbia Journalism Review went through 3,600 stories from U.S. news outlets that featured missing people in 2021. They found that if a Black man went missing in St. Louis, for instance, there would be around a dozen news stories about him. But a young white woman from the same place would attract 10 times the media coverage. The amount of media attention that a missing persons case gets can affect what happens with that case and the person at the heart of it. The lack of media coverage for people of color often means their loved ones struggle not only to get news coverage for the case, but also police resources dedicated to finding them. David Robinson II knows what it's like to have to fight for the attention of the media, the police and the public in the hope of finding his son.

DAVID ROBINSON II: Media wasn't really, at the time, reaching back out, so I had to keep pressing and pressing.

SUMMERS: David's son, 24-year-old Daniel Robinson, went missing just a few months before Gabby Petito. He was last seen leaving a job site in Buckeye, Ariz., on June 23, 2021. Daniel had moved to Arizona for a job as a field geologist after he graduated from college. At the time that he went missing, he was driving a blue-gray Jeep Renegade. According to the Buckeye Police Department, his damaged Jeep was found in a desert ravine on July 19, a little less than a month after he was last seen. Police said that his clothes, his cellphone, wallet and keys were found at the scene and that foul play was not suspected given the state of his car. Nearly two years later, Daniel Robinson is still missing.

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NATALIE WILSON: We are not naive to believe that every missing persons case will get national media coverage.

SUMMERS: That's Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation. It's a nonprofit dedicated to bringing attention to the cases of missing persons of color, like David's son, Daniel. I recently spoke with both David Robinson II and Natalie Wilson.

David, I want to start with you. First of all, I'm just so sorry to hear about your son, but I want to learn more about him. Can you just start by telling us a little bit about Daniel as a person?

ROBINSON: Yes. Daniel, he's the youngest of his three other siblings, he has a twin sister and older brother. He's missing his right hand. Growing up with that, some may call it a disability. Daniel did things differently to show that it's not. For instance, Daniel taught himself how to play a French horn. You know, he taught himself how to play the trumpet. He also, growing up, decided to get into geology. Once he graduated from high school, going to the College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C., not only did he graduate in geology, but he excelled. He graduated with honors. He's also a founder for his local fraternity.

So the thing is, what I'm saying about Daniel - he's a person that's a go-getter. He set his mind to something, he actually do it. At the same time, his personality defines him - his friendly atmosphere. He brings people together. He has tons of friends. He bring the family together. Anytime there's conflict, he's right there. So that's Daniel.

SUMMERS: And as we mentioned, Daniel's been missing since 2021. Can you tell us a little bit about what happened and when you found out that he was missing?

ROBINSON: First thing we're thinking, you need to go to check his apartment to make sure he's not there, you know, or he's just not answering his phone, that type stuff. And we was able to rule out that he was not answering his phone. So, of course, the next step was to try to get law enforcement to do a welfare check. So started off that way. Things progressed from that point. Just knowing my son, his patterns, he wouldn't go six hours - I realized it's over six hours at the time - he wouldn't go that long without letting his family, friends, someone know what he's doing that day. So that was very suspicious to us. From that point, that's when I was able to try to reach out to law enforcement in Arizona.

SUMMERS: Natalie, I want to bring you in here. You are the co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation. What brought you to this work?

WILSON: So the inspiration behind the Black and Missing Foundation is a young lady who disappeared from Spartanburg, S.C. My sister-in-law, who has partnered with me in this organization and founding this organization, we read how her family really struggled to get national media coverage. A year later, Natalee Holloway disappeared. And I'm sure that your readers, just seeing her name alone, they know her face and her story. So we, you know, we weren't sure if this is an issue affecting our communities because we don't see individuals that look like us making the news cycle when we disappear. We found that 30% of all persons missing were of color, primarily Black males, and we decided, why not us? And we founded the organization 15 years ago. And what keeps us going, what motivates us to keep going are these families that are desperately searching for their missing loved ones and they have no avenue to turn to. So we're using our expertise.

SUMMERS: You just brought up a really stunning statistic, the high share of people who go missing that are people of color compared to the U.S. population. Can you tell us why people of color - and particularly Black people and Black men, as you point out, Natalie - make up such a large share of those who go missing?

WILSON: We're finding that people are disappearing for a number of reasons - one, sex trafficking. Especially during the pandemic, we have seen an uptick in those cases of our children being online and communicating with individuals that they think are their age. They're meeting up with them. So sex trafficking is an issue that is happening in our communities. It's not just happening abroad. Mental health challenges, domestic violence against women. And we're also seeing our senior population wander away from their home because of, you know, dementia or Alzheimer's.

But, you know, we also started the organization because missing people of color were just under the radar. They're not getting the same level of media coverage or law enforcement resources. Nine out of the 10 cases that we receive when there's a missing minor, law enforcement tend to classify that child as a runaway. So they're classified as a runaway. They do not receive the Amber Alert, and they definitely don't receive any type of media coverage at all, and as a result, they remain missing four times longer than any other group. So what we're trying to do is to even the playing field. We're not asking for anything special. We just want to make sure that our missing are household names, too.

SUMMERS: I mean, I want to ask you both about this point. Natalee Holloway, who disappeared back in 2005 but is still a household name, the more recent case of Gabby Petito - these are stories that riveted the nation, that got primetime coverage. There were news stories on programs, including NPR, about those cases. What do you think the role of the media is here? I mean, why do you think cases like those get such a different treatment than cases like Daniel's?

WILSON: What we're finding as we're speaking to individuals or reporters at news stations - there are no policies in place to determine who gets coverage. So if you get two calls at a news station, who decides who gets that coverage? And it's typically a news editor - it's a middle-aged white man - and may not see the value in telling the story of that missing individual from a marginalized community. So we have to also change the narrative that these are our missing mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. Let's humanize these missing individuals.

SUMMERS: David, I want to ask you about your experience in navigating that media ecosystem as you advocated for help for finding your son Daniel. What was that like for you, and what do you think about the way that Black men - Black people who go missing are treated compared to their white counterparts?

ROBINSON: My experience trying to get my son's name - to simply get his name out there, it was very hard. It took me three months just to get a local news organization to...

SUMMERS: Three months?

ROBINSON: Yes, yes. Three months to - just to get his story out there. I reached out to the news stations, the radio stations, trying everything I can, day and night - up day and night, writing letters just to get coverage. It took - it was very difficult.

SUMMERS: What were the kinds of things you heard when you were reaching out to reporters or news stations to try to get his name and his case and, frankly, his face out there? What did they say to you?

ROBINSON: Well, you know, one of the biggest problems is my son - he's an adult to many. To me, he's a child. He's my son. And I think what happens when I talk to a lot of individuals, like the reporters, news stations, I'm often hearing things like he's an adult. Buckeye Police Department say he's a grown man. Maybe he just left and wanted to be away. So those are the things that are contradictory to the things that I know about my son. And so that was problematic - just trying to make sure people understood that Daniel didn't come from a place where he needed to just go disappear or he wanted to be away from his family.

SUMMERS: I mean, your story is, unfortunately, one that is all too common across this country, particularly when we're talking about missing people of color. I'm curious to both of you, how do we make this experience better so that fewer people of color who go missing stay missing so that their families have the resources they need? I mean, we have Amber Alerts for missing children. There are Silver Alerts for missing elders that we get on our phones. Should there be a similar system for missing people?

WILSON: There should be an alert system - a public communication alert system for people of color. But I will say that right now, there are two alert systems, one for minors and one for seniors, and most people who are reported missing don't fall into that category. So the media and social media platforms are not being alerted of their disappearance. And Minnesota Representative Ruth Richardson had legislation passed so that Black women and girls can be protected. And now California is also trying to pass legislation to enhance or improve the public communications alert system with an Ebony Alert.

But I also want to add - and David can, you know, expound on this a bit - he had to raise funds to get the basic resources, and we assisted him with this, to help find his son, you know, whether it was drones or the search party. And typically, law enforcement, with taxpayer dollars, would help with that search. But David - and we see this all the time with families - they have to raise funds on their own to help find their missing loved one.

SUMMERS: David, anything you want to add there?

ROBINSON: Yes. It was just painful just hearing that, and it's true. One of the things that I've relied on is law enforcement to - my vision was them walking side by side with me to search for my son. We was able to do over 48 weeks of searches, and, you know, it was really rough not having law enforcement's presence there, having to - I'm a person that has a lot of pride, so I had to go out to the community to ask for funding just to keep searches going, just to get out flyers and things like that. And I thank the Black and Missing Foundation for their help. But I was looking for law enforcement to do so, and it was very painful to literally be a grown man and beg law enforcement to help and the help don't ever come.

SUMMERS: David, it'll be two years this month since Daniel went missing. What you're describing sounds agonizing for any parent. My heart really breaks for you. I have to ask you, what keeps you going after all this time? How do you keep doing this?

ROBINSON: Well, the only thing we have - I have is God. God has strengthened my life, of course - my love for my son. He's my youngest son. My son don't give up on anything. I'm definitely not giving up on him. I also rely on my military training. We're trained to never leave a fallen comrade, never leave anyone behind. My son is Daniel, Daniel Robinson. I'm definitely not leaving him behind. I've learned to make finding my son my mission - my life mission. You know, you put the mission first, and that's what I'm doing. So to keep going, I try to make sure I just focus on everything - focus on everything that I've learned and try to make sure I stay focused on finding my son and do that without fail.

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SUMMERS: That was David Robinson II. His son, Daniel Robinson, is still missing. You also heard from Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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