Tara McKelvey, BBC News, May 9, 2013
Three young women disappeared in Cleveland. Media coverage of their cases illustrates stereotypes about race.
Charles Ramsey heard someone screaming in a nearby house. Luckily, he managed to help the woman, Amanda Berry, who was in distress.
Because of his efforts, she, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight escaped from the house in Cleveland where they were held captive for a decade or more.
“I knew something was wrong when a little, pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms,” Ramsey said later.
“Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway.”
As it turned out, Ramsey’s assessment was a twist on what is known among media critics as the Missing White Woman Syndrome.
Charlton McIlwain, a professor at New York University and the author of Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in US Political Campaigns, defines the syndrome: “White women occupy a privileged role as violent crime victims in news media reporting.”
In other words, the victim is white and middle class. Ideally, she is saved – by a white guy.
“Our victims are colour-coded,” says McIlwain. A proper victim is one who looks like a journalist, he says.
“Research shows that in terms of crime victims, they are people who we view as being like us – like those who are covering the events or reading about them,” he says.
“Our national ideal of who is vulnerable – and who holds victim status – are those who are white and female.”
The perception of victimhood is partly a media creation.
In truth, nearly half of those individuals who go missing in the US are not white – though one might not know that from the news coverage.
According to a 2010 academic study, roughly 80% of the news coverage about missing children is devoted to victims who are not black, while only 20% is given to children who are black.
The breakdown in media coverage does not reflect reality. “We have a sort of racial hierarchy,” says McIlwain.
The coverage of violent crime and of people who have disappeared is biased and hurtful, says Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, which fights racial stereotypes in the media.
She first came across the stereotypes in crime reporting when she heard about a 24-year-old black woman, Tamika Huston, who went missing in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 2004.
Journalists seemed indifferent.
“The family really struggled to get any coverage whatsoever,” says Wilson.
Wilson knows she cannot change the outcome of these cases. Many end in tragedy. More than a year after Huston’s disappearance, a former boyfriend pleaded guilty to her murder.
Yet at least the story has been reported – and her family knows what happened to her.
In some cases, it takes years to sort out the truth.
Some families who have lost a loved one only manage with help from an organisation like the Black and Missing Foundation or from a prominent activist.
Stephen Lawrence, 19, was stabbed by white thugs who used a racial slur in London in April 1993. His murder hardly caused a stir in the national media. After a fortnight, Stephen’s family held a press conference to complain not enough was being done by police to catch the killers. ThenNelson Mandela got involved.
Last year the killers, Gary Dobson and David Norris, were sentenced to life in prison for the killing.
Experts say that all too often when crimes are committed against people of colour the cases remain unsolved. And no one except their families seems to care.
The case in Cleveland shone a spotlight on the cases of missing children.
Experts hope that this will make more people pay attention to those who have disappeared, regardless of the colour of their skin.
Indeed, the story may help to remind journalists – and their audiences – that crime cuts across racial lines. It may have another positive aspect, too.
Charles Ramsey helped to save Berry, DeJesus and Knight from their prison. He was also blunt.
“Ramsey just called it like he saw it,” says Farai Chideya, author of The Color of Our Future: Race in the 21st Century.
“People say, ‘Wow, he’s representing our race, and he’s doing something really awesome – but why can’t he comb his hair?’
“I think it’s healthy to expand the notion of what a good black man is. You don’t have to have a full set of teeth to be a hero.”