Way back in December Joel F. emailed us about an issue he’d noticed in regards to media stories about missing children. He commented,

All of the most high profile cases are strikingly similar in one major aspect. For the most part, the victim is a beautiful white blonde girl. When, if ever, has an African-American of Hispanic girl or boy garnered such national interest for going missing?

He sent in images of a number of missing children who got a lot of media coverage. There’s Jon Benet Ramset, of course:


Then we have Amber:


Amber, of course, is the child the Amber Alert system is named after:


Caylee Anthonee:


There are others–Madeleine McCann, Nancy Grace, Natalee Holloway. But you get the idea.

Now, I’m going to be honest here: I was initially a bit skeptical. I didn’t know anything about missing child statistics, so how could I say whether White children were over-represented? It seemed possible, even likely, but I just didn’t know, and I hesitated to put up the post until I’d had time to get more info to back up Joel’s points.

But it turns out there are studies on this, such as this analysis that found that non-White children and girls are underrepresented in media coverage compared to actual missing children statistics. The racial underrepresentation doesn’t surprise me, but the gender finding does–I can’t think of many times I’ve seen a lot of coverage of a missing boy, other than the Susan Smith case back in the 1990s.

The Chicago Defender points out a number of specific cases of missing African American children and asks why these girls haven’t gotten as much attention as Jon Benet and others. And Capitol Hill Blue describes more instances where Black and Hispanic missing children didn’t get a lot of media coverage, with specific statistics on the race/ethnicity of all missing children compared to percent of media coverage in several selected outlets.

Joel asks why non-White children don’t get equal media attention:

Is it because there is an assumption that minorities live in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods, making kidnappings not very unusual or news-worthy? Does this make their lives less valuable? Is it because their dark features lack the aesthetic appeal necessary to flood all of the cable news shows and newspaper front pages?

Those are some interesting questions to which I have no answers. The first paper I described above suggested some possible reasons, including concentrated media ownership, (lack of) newsroom diversity, and the commercial motive of most news outlets. I’d hazard a guess that to some degree we see White children as innocent victims in a way that we don’t necessarily view other kids (Ann Ferguson, for instance, discusses the way that Black children are often adultified, their behavior attributed to intentional maliciousness rather than a “boys will be boys” mischieviousness; see a post related to that here). And there’s the voyeuristic shock at the idea that little White girls might have been kidnapped by a pedophile, who is doing horrible things to them in some dank basement.

Other thoughts? Any experts in media/communication/journalism studies out there who have any ideas?

UPDATE: Commenter eruvande pointed out that when discussing the case of an 11-year-old boy, Shawn Hornbeck, who was kidnapped, beaten, and sexually abused for 4 years, Bill O’Reilly implies that he must have liked the situation or wanted to be there, because otherwise he could have escaped:

When Van Susteren points out the case of Elizabeth Smart, who also seemed to have opportunities to escape and didn’t “choose” to take them, O’Reilly refers to her as a “little girl,” although she was 14 when she was kidnapped.

I am trying to imagine a similar response to a girl. Although we often still blame women for being raped, it seems to go the other way when it comes to childhood sexual abuse/kidnapping: girls might get to be innocent victims, but boys ought to have been tough enough to get away. If they didn’t, they must have liked it.

Unbelievable, really.

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