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‘Black Girl Missing’ dramatizes the toll of missing white woman syndrome

Annie Aguiar
March 6, 2023

A reporter sits across the table from a woman looking for her missing daughter, hoping to get news coverage to help bring her home.

The station would be happy to run the girl’s photo at 5 p.m. with the news roundup, the reporter tells her, but there’s not much else she can do. What the reporter doesn’t need to tell her is that a missing white girl is currently commanding national media attention, while this mother and her missing daughter are Black.

“So until my daughter is murdered,” the mother asks, “she’s not newsworthy?”

That question of newsworthiness is at the heart of “Black Girl Missing,” a Lifetime movie that premiered over the weekend starring Garcelle Beauvais (“Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”) as Cheryl Baker, a mother who tries and fails to get media and law enforcement to pay attention to her missing daughter, Lauren (Iyana Halley).

The movie is inspired by actual stories of missing women of color, threading in real-life instances of law enforcement politely dismissing calls, local television stations gracefully turning down pleas for coverage and mothers holding out for hope.

Screenwriter Kale Futterman was tapped to write “Black Girl Missing” in the wake of 22-year-old Gabby Petito’s disappearance, only given the prompt that it would be a tale of two missing girls: one white and one Black.

“Unfortunately, there are just so many stories about Black people who have gone missing,” Futterman said. “So there really was no shortage of stories I could pull from and create this composite.”

Petito’s disappearance captivated the country in 2021. Body cam surveillance and conspiracy theory spread across network television and TikTok, with audiences of all ages following the story.

But with her disappearance came another round of discourse on “missing white woman syndrome,” the media phenomenon coined by journalist Gwen Ifill in which outlets breathlessly track each development of missing white women and girls.

In contrast are the undercovered disappearances of women of color, which at best tend to cap out at local markets and lack national emphasis.

Each story is unique, Futterman said, with one commonality: an “intersectional lack of attention” from the public, police and media.

Guidance for the script also came from Natalie and Derrica Wilson, co-founders of the nonprofit Black and Missing Foundation and sisters-in-law, who directly work with the relatives of missing people to get attention to these cases.

They’re familiar with the stonewalling from the media, especially with cases of college-aged women deemed runaways by law enforcement. When Phoenix Coldon went missing from her home in St. Louis, the Black and Missing Foundation stepped in.

“I remember calling every single media outlet in that area and no one wanted to pick up the story,” Natalie Wilson said. “I was either met with silence, or a no, thank you.” Eventually, she said, an assignment editor tired of fielding her phone calls and agreed to run something.

Law enforcement is also a major roadblock to coverage, Natalie and Derrica Wilson said. Police often act as gatekeepers for information about a case and too often write off missing women and girls of color as runaways.

Danielle K. Brown, a professor at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities whose work focuses on media portrayals of marginalized communities, can’t be solved by any one newsroom.

“There’s multiple systems working against journalists in the mainstream to be able to see these stories in the first place,” she said. “Questionable police reports make these more investigative and not breaking news. We know that some of the documentation problems are what make some of these easy to miss. It’s a systemic issue.”

“Black Girl Missing” isn’t the Black and Missing Foundation’s first foray into creating media to shed light on the systemic holes that the search for missing women and girls of color fall into. In 2021, the HBO documentary series “Black and Missing” showcased the Wilsons’ work, but the jump to Lifetime is a conscious effort to reach a different audience.

Brown said that while the dramatization of these stories is good for raising awareness, conversations about missing white woman syndrome pop up every few years while progress stays slim.

“Even though it is a more mainstream conversation about some of the issues that are happening in news media today, it doesn’t mean that those things have been corrected,” she said. “When we have all kinds of influential people and media systems critiquing some of our most egregious issues, we are able to collectively move things.”

“We have seen some change,” Derrica Wilson said. “But there is still a long way to go.”

Takeaways for newsrooms

While WBBV News was a fictional newsroom created for “Black Girl Missing,” real-life newsrooms can learn from its missteps. Here are five takeaways from Natalie and Derrica Wilson and Danielle Brown.

  • Consider a policy on missing persons coverage. Natalie and Derrica Wilson say in their visits to newsrooms and journalism conferences, few if any newsrooms have firm policies on what missing persons they cover and why.
  • Be mindful of photos chosen to go with a story about a missing person. The wrong photo can be doubly harmful in reinforcing stereotypes and limit the possibility of them being recognized from a more neutral picture.
  • Hold law enforcement accountable. Missing women and girls of color often are labeled as runaways and deprioritized. The Black and Missing Foundation recommends that journalists regularly check in on lists of missing persons and how often those cases are solved in their market.
  • Understand the power of reach. “When time is critical, we really need to be able to reach the most amount of people in the shortest period of time,” Natalie Wilson said. The search can easily cross state lines, making getting the word out vital.
  • Recognize that news values change. What is and isn’t considered newsworthy changes with time, and not having the immediate resolution of a narrative arc or a concrete event to report on doesn’t mean something shouldn’t be covered.

Photo credit: A+E Networks

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