By Guest Contributor Kendra James
The bias in reporting the stories of missing children and people of color is nothing new. The names Elizabeth Smart, Shondra Levey, Kaley Anthony, Adam Walsh, Jaycee Dugard, and even the Lindbergh Baby roll off my tongue easily, but how many Pam Butlers, Hassani Campbells, or Jakadrien Turners can I name?
Two weeks ago on The Today Show, Ann Curry sat with the mother and sister of George Smith, a white Connecticut man who vanished on a cruise during his honeymoon in 2005. The same morning, I was following the story of Jakadrien, the 15-year-old runaway from Texas who went missing for eight months, before being found recently in the country of Colombia where she had been mistakenly deported.
After being featured on Today, Smith’s story was covered by Dateline NBC that evening. Turner’s, I read about on Tumblr and, later, Gawker. A search for the girl’s name that day revealed no articles on the New York Times website, and nothing on the Today Show site. Maybe the saddest part about that is my Tumblr dashboard regularly features pictures, signs, and descriptions for missing children of color who aren’t getting any attention at all aside from a few thousand reblogs via the site’s social justice blogs.
It’s thanks to TVOne’s new news magazine show, Find Our Missing, that I can add Campbell and Butler to my list.
Like other news magazines, the show, which debuted this week, focuses on the unsolved mysteries of missing persons that any crime junkie will find thrilling. The only difference between the cases featured on this show and programs like Dateline and 20/20 is the color of the victims’ skin. Host S. Epatha Merkerson (of Law and Order) focuses solely on the oft-ignored ignored cases of missing people of color. Aside from the victims, it’s important to point out that there is absolutely nothing about Find Our Missing that codes it as a ‘Black Show’. Yes, the cases are about our own [African-American] missing, but there is nothing about them that should prevent them from getting the same attention from the network programs.
As a viewer, you become infuriated while watching the show if you’re not from the areas where Butler and Campbell lived, because it’s likely you’ve never heard their names, and each story leaves you wondering why. Butler, a Washington DC native, has an intricate video surveillance system surrounding her home, yet she vanishes almost into thin air in 2009, possibly through the one window not covered by a camera. Her boyfriend is caught on surveillance leaving the home with a bulging, black garbage bag a few days later.
In California, Hassani, a five year old with cerebral palsy and braces on his legs, is supposedly driven to meet his aunt at work by her fiance, who claims to have left the child in the back parking lot while he visits her at work. But when they return five minutes later he’s vanished. Later, after finding a series of text messages from his aunt’s fiance, authorities suspect that the boy had been missing even before the drive. Like Butler, Hassani has been missing since August 2009, and despite living in a country that seems to devour media stories about missing children, his plight never caught the national media’s attention.
The show’s production value looks no different than an episode of NBC’s Dateline. The format is the same, the investigation is no less thorough, the cases are just as baffling to solve, and the production values are just as good. It could be featured on any network, not just a ‘niche’ channel like TVOne. But would my fellow MSNBC junkies of the American public be interested? They should be.
I don’t begrudge anyone getting their due attention and diligence when they go missing. The coverage they receive more often than not helps in their eventual recovery, or at least leads to finding the parties responsible, and by no means is that a bad thing. More troubling is the lack of that kind of attention leveled on the missing African Americans. After all, we make up a a third of all missing persons cases in the United States, while being only 12 percent of the population.
The stories Find Our Missing features don’t make for less compelling television — can you imagine the uproar America would be in if the media caught wind of a kidnapped, disabled, white five year old? — and they don’t lack substance or quality. Why isn’t Ann Curry talking about Hassani or Pamela? Are we still seen as such an Other in this country that the heartstrings that tug at Elizabeth Smart’s name won’t also tug for Hassani Campbell? Or is it that kidnapping and mysterious disappearances simply aren’t seen as crimes that happens to Black people? Gang, drug, sexual, and domestic violence are ‘our’ crimes, and the media struggles to break away from that mold when giving coverage to stories of the missing.
It’s almost as if they’re confused when a comfortable, middle class black woman goes missing with no hints of the average ‘Black crime’ elements involved. (The common perception that there are ‘no black serial killers’ certainly helps explain the difference in the amount of national coverage Anthony Sowell received in comparison to other recent serial killers like Dennis Rader in yet another case involving several missing Black women in the Cleveland area.)
When it comes to shows profiling crimes and criminals, you’re more likely to see a person of color starring on Lock Up than you are on Dateline, and that’s one of the reasons I’ll be watching Find Our Missing every week. If given a platform and the exposure it deserves, I firmly believe that the program can help solve some of the cases it features.
Even if the cases aren’t solved, at least they’ll get people thinking and remembering that there aren’t just the white women disappearing in Aruba to worry about. If there’s 20 minutes of a telecast to devote to Natalee Holloway and Robyn Gardner, then there should be twenty minutes to dedicate to Pamela Butler and Jakadrien Turner. Hassani Campbell should have received the same amount of coverage as Elizabeth Smart. In a perfect world Find Our Missing wouldn’t need to exist, but until we’re there and a tumblr dashboard is no longer the prime resource for information about missing Black children*. I encourage you to tune in to TV One on Wednesdays at 10pm EST and check out new episodes.
[*By which I do not mean to discount the importance of any signal boosting that the tumblr dashboard does do. As it stands now, Tumblr is one of my number one stops for news of the missing and that’s not something to be taken lightly. If you have any interest in the plight of missing African-Americans and other people of Color who aren’t catching the attention of the local or national news and don’t get TVOne at home, I encourage you to check out this post. In some cases, Tumblr is the only tool these people and families have working for them.]
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