Young, Black and Missing: Why Do Missing Blacks Get Less Media Attention?

February 4, 2011  |  

By Brittany Hutson

Phylicia Barnes, a 17-year-old track star and honors student from Monroe, NC, was in Baltimore for the Christmas holiday to visit her three older half-siblings, Deena, Kelly and Bryan. She had only reconnected with them a little under two years ago after being introduced to them at a family reunion in 2001. She was a typical teenager, happy and bubbly, and enjoying time with her sisters going to the mall, taking pictures and watching movies.

But what was supposed to be a joyous reunion has turned into an absolute nightmare. On December 28th 2010, Phylicia disappeared from Deena’s apartment in Northwest Baltimore and five weeks later, Baltimore police have no leads as to her whereabouts.

The circumstances surrounding Phylicia’s case are troublesome, but what’s also troublesome is how for the first few weeks, her case garnered little media attention nationally despite her story being in consistent rotation on the local media circuit. This initial lack of attention has reignited a deep-rooted dialogue about how the national press fails to provide balanced coverage of a diverse population of missing persons.

In 2009, a total of 719,558 missing person records were entered into the National Crime Information Center’s Missing Person File. A little over 30 percent of those missing are African-American and they only account for 12.9 percent of the U.S. population, while whites, who make-up 79.6 percent of the U.S. population, account for 60 percent of missing persons—although the number of white missing persons also includes the number of Hispanic missing persons, according to the NCIC Missing Person and Unidentified Person Statistics.

Despite the statistics, media sensation continually revolves around one specific type of missing person—white women. The American public is familiar with the disappearances of women such as Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson and Natalie Holloway, and yet, besides Phylicia’s case, “no other missing black female has entered the national psyche,” wrote Dee Wright of the Baltimore Sun.

“There is no difference between these [missing] children, the only difference is color,” said Gaétane Borders, president of Peas in Their Pods, an organization established in 2007 to assist in finding missing children of color. “Phylicia and Natalie [Holloway] actually have very similar stories—both are beautiful, smart, upwardly mobile, going places and disappeared in a town that was unfamiliar to them. But Natalie got around the clock coverage whereas [news of] Phylicia just started gaining momentum a little over a week ago.”

The Baltimore police department was baffled by the lack of media attention Phylicia’s case was initially getting. Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi pitched Phylicia’s story relentlessly to national media and received no response.

“It was frustrating,” he told TAP. “Phylicia Barnes’ case deserves the same treatment as Natalie Holloway. This isn’t just a Baltimore story, this is an American story.”

A lack of media assistance unfortunately reduces the chances of a reunion or closure for the families of the missing child, explained Derrica Wilson, president of Black and Missing, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides awareness about missing persons of color and support to the families of missing persons. For example, Latisha Frazier, a 19-year-old from Washington, D.C., went missing in August and her case did not receive any national attention, let alone any local attention. When a local and not-so-popular channel in the metropolitan area aired Frazier’s story, a viewer saw her picture and called in with a tip that led to the arrest of her boyfriend in late January for her murder. But her body still has not been found.

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