The pretty missing white girl syndrome

For a missing child to attract widespread publicity and improve the odds of being found, it helps if the child is white, wealthy, cute and under 12.

Experts agree that whites account for only half of the nation’s missing children. But white children were the subjects of more than two-thirds of the dispatches appearing on the Associated Press’ national wire during the last five years and for three-quarters of missing-children coverage on CNN, according to a first-of-its-kind study by Scripps Howard News Service.

“I don’t think this results from conscious or subconscious racism,” said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “But there’s no question that if a case resonates, if it touches the heartstrings, if it makes people think ‘that could be my child,’ then it’s likely to pass the test to be considered newsworthy. Does that skew in favor of white kids? Yes, it probably does.”

That race and class affect news coverage is a fact that’s not lost on the families of missing minority children.

“But the thing about it, the ghetto mamas love their babies just like the rich people do. And they need to recognize that,” Mattie Mitchell said of news executives.

Mitchell is the great-grandmother of missing 4-year-old Jaquilla Scales. Jaquilla, who is black and has never been found, drew only slight national coverage in 2001 when she was snatched from her bedroom in Wichita, Kan. But the bedroom kidnappings of Danielle van Dam, Polly Klaas, Jessica Lundsford and Elizabeth Smart, all white girls, erupted in a barrage of publicity.

“They could have done more,” Jaquilla’s mother, Eureka Scales, said of national news organizations. “They could have put more out there so people could know.”

Media coverage of missing children has an even stronger age bias. Children less than 12 represented only a sixth of all cases reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the last five years. But they accounted for more than two-thirds of national news stories in the study.

“It hasn’t been proven, but there’s a cuteness factor, I think,” said Mitch Oldham of the National Runaway Switchboard. “Why do people like pandas more than condors? They’re more cuddly. I won’t say it’s a callousness towards older children. But younger children are perceived to be more vulnerable.”

Scripps Howard studied 162 missing-children cases reported by the Associated Press from Jan. 1, 2000, through Dec. 31, 2004. Forty-three CNN reports were also studied. Scripps Howard determined the race of the child in each case by checking records maintained by missing-children organizations or by contacting police investigators.

White children accounted for 67 percent of AP’s missing-children coverage and for 76 percent of CNN’s. But they represented only 53 percent of the 37,665 cases reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children during the same period and only 54 percent of the cases found in a 2002 study of missing children sponsored by the U.S. Justice Department.

Black children accounted for 17 percent of the AP stories, 13 percent of CNN’s, 19 percent in the Justice Department’s study and 23 percent of cases reported to the National Center.

The discrepancies for Hispanic children were greater, accounting for just 11 percent of AP’s reporting and 9 percent of CNN’s stories, yet 18 percent of children reported to the National Center and 21 percent in the Justice Department study.

“I think there are explanations other than that black kids and Hispanic kids are not objects of concern or compassion,” said sociologist David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire and author of the Justice Department’s 2002 study.

“Middle-class white families have good social networks and are able to mobilize people better, making it a matter of communitywide attention. But minority parents may not see the media as a likely source of help,” he said.

Executives at CNN headquarters in Atlanta refused to comment on Scripps Howard’s study.

Associated Press Managing Editor Mike Silverman, however, said his staff “has certainly talked and thought a lot about what kinds of cases are getting media attention.” He said racial and age disparities in missing-children reporting may be smaller when looking at community news covered by an individual newspaper or television station.

“The issue of age has a fairly simple explanation,” Silverman said. “Teenage runaways simply are not national news in the same way as are abductions, particularly abductions by strangers. More people in more places are going to be interested when a smaller child is at peril.”

Parents of missing minority children and several national advocacy groups complain that missing teenagers face a presumption that they’ve run away. “Minority families probably have a harder time overcoming this runaway hypothesis,” Finkelhor said.

A good example is the 2002 abduction of Laura Ayala, 13, who disappeared after walking a block from her Houston home to buy a newspaper for her mother. Police found only the newspaper and the Hispanic teenager’s shoes in a nearby parking lot.

“The police said that maybe she left with her boyfriend,” said Laura’s mother, Angelica Rebollar. “I felt desperate. I knew something was wrong. I knew she didn’t have a boyfriend.”

Allen and other staff workers at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children tried to persuade Texas newspapers and radio and television stations to cover the disappearance in hopes that an alert public might help locate the teen.

“I made dozens of phone calls,” Allen said. “But we were told, ‘Oh, she probably just ran away.’ My response was: ‘Without her shoes?’ The presumption by media in cases of a 12- or 13-year-old is that this is a runaway. End of story.”

Laura was never located. But Houston police made a full investigation and now believe she was abducted and killed by a man on Texas’ death row for another crime. Her story, after considerable prompting, was picked up by CNN and the regional AP wire and was featured prominently on the Univision national Hispanic cable TV network.

But Rebollar said she believes her daughter would have been located if police and the press had acted more quickly. “I felt I was treated differently because I’m Hispanic, without a lot of money,” she said.

Missing-children advocates say publicity can save lives. Amber Alerts on local radio and television broadcasts, for example, have helped recover hundreds of children in the last seven years. National media attention can be even more powerful, especially in cases where police fear a kidnapper has crossed state lines with a child.

“We hope that news directors, editors and media decision-makers will begin to view this from the perspective of public service,” Allen said. “The reality is that media works. When we can bring attention, we can mobilize the eyes and ears of the American public, we dramatically increase the likelihood that the child is going to be found safely.”

News executives have long considered how minorities, especially disadvantaged minorities, are treated, Silverman said. “My hunch is that socioeconomics has a lot to do with this. Affluent parents have the wherewithal to use the system better,” he said.

Ivan Roman, executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, agreed.

“This is a class problem, a sign of how the media value the concerns of white, middle-class people,” Roman said. “We used to have the so-called ‘good address’ syndrome. When a crime occurred in a middle-class neighborhood, it got coverage. That same mentality continues to play out.”

But there can be other, more subtle factors at work. Allen said it is much harder to gain media attention for missing children in major urban areas where much of America’s minority population lives.

“A few years ago in New York City, we had two beautiful 2-year-old African-American boys who disappeared within a few months of each other from the same playground across the street from the same apartment house where they both lived,” Allen said. “Media coverage could really have helped here. But we were told by media executives: ‘It’s New York. These kind of things happen in big cities.’ ”

Media attention is easier to obtain in smaller communities, which tend to have predominately white populations, Allen said. “Missing children get the most attention in rural areas and small towns, places where people think these kinds of things don’t happen,” he said.

Scripps Howard examined media reports on AP and CNN from 2000 through 2004, a period selected so that comparisons could be made to data provided by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children during these same years. The Associated Press is the largest producer of print news in the United States, providing more national stories than any other source. CNN was selected because it was the largest provider of national television reporting during this period.

Experts warn that patterns found in this study are indicative of reporting practices throughout the nation’s news media. “This certainly crosses the entire media spectrum and is not unique to just CNN or the AP,” Allen said.

This study also examined missing-children stories carried by Scripps Howard News Service. Using the same methods employed to study the Associated Press, only four missing-children cases were carried from 2000 to 2004. Two of these were white children, one was black and one was biracial.

(Contact Thomas Hargrove and Ansley Haman at