When a Child Dies

Missing White Girl Syndrome

We've all heard of Amber alerts. But Rilya alerts? Probably not.

As with the Amber system, children whose disappearances are announced under the Rilya system must be 17 or under, reported missing to law enforcement and believed to be in danger. Rilya alerts — named in honor of Rilya Wilson, who disappeared unnoticed from Florida's foster care system at age 4 — also have one more criterion: they're only for children of color.

The need for an extra alert system for racial minorities stems largely from a phenomenon known as “Missing White Girl Syndrome" — a tendency by the news media to cover the murders and abductions of affluent or middle-class white girls far more than those of boys, poor kids and kids of color, especially African-Americans. An estimated 42 percent of missing children are black.

“Often the assumption is that the white girls are quote-unquote innocent victims whereas with poor children or children of color, there's some nefarious activities involved,” says Dori Maynard, president of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, which promotes diversity in the news media.

“Missing White Girl Syndrome is just another way that white children are considered more precious by the dominant U.S. culture,” adds Dorothy Roberts, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who studies gender and race.

If you doubt the need for Rilya alerts, think about how many white kids you can name who've gone missing and turned up dead, then ask yourself the same question about racial minorities who've disappeared under similar circumstances. Polly Klaas, Elizabeth Smart and JonBenet Ramsey became household names after their cases made headlines for months, even years. Their stories, like others that tend to fascinate the news media, involved cute or pretty privileged girls whose cases centered on whodunit mysteries. Typically, such stories feature adorable photos or videos that are aired over and over again. As a general rule, kids whose cases get the most coverage come from families with connections capable of snagging media attention when it most counts — in the hours after an abduction or murder — and then keeping the story in the headlines.

Meanwhile, cases involving kids who aren't privileged, white and conventionally attractive go largely unreported. Rilya Wilson's is a case in point. The 4-year-old who was born into poverty and removed from her mother's custody went missing for eight months before anyone realized she was gone, according to Peas in Their Pods, the Georgia-based group that set up the national alert system in her name. The organization formed in 2007 to spread awareness and improve the response time searching for children of color who are abducted or endangered.

Comedian Jon Stewart calculated the following equation for how much airtime child abductions get on TV: y (minutes of media coverage) = Family Income x (Abductee Cuteness รท Skin Color) + Length of Abduction x Media Savvy of Grieving Parents.

Missing White Girl Syndrome stems from some of the oldest power dynamics in our culture. Though 32 percent of the U.S. population is non-white or Hispanic, only 13 percent of newspaper journalists and 22 percent of TV newsroom staff are racial minorities, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. As Maynard tells it, journalists have a “tendency to consciously or unconsciously cover communities that remind them of their own.”

Nobody, even the harshest media critics, is arguing that every dead or missing child should get the same coverage. Rather, an awareness of Missing White Girl Syndrome raises legitimate questions about fairness and accuracy, perception and reality, right and wrong.

Rarely were those biases more glaring than in the 2003 coverage of an ambush on U.S. soldiers during the Iraq War. One female solider, Lori Piestewa, a Hopi from a poor background — and also a single mother — was killed in the attack. Two others, Shoshana Johnson (a black woman and single mom) and Jessica Lynch (a blond white woman who was childless) were hurt and taken as prisoners. Most news organizations focused only on Lynch's story, which the Pentagon embellished by vastly overstating her heroics. Lynch herself criticized the Defense Department's propaganda and slammed the news media for singling her out.

“I am still confused as to why they chose to lie and tried to make me a legend when the real heroics of my fellow soldiers that day were, in fact, legendary,” she testified before Congress. “The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals of heroes and they don't need to be told elaborate tales.”

Critics' outcry about media bias grew louder in 2005 during the media blitz about Natalee Holloway, a pretty blond teen who had disappeared in Aruba. While her story dominated headlines, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson decried the "damsel in distress” mythology that was preoccupying the nation.

“It's the meta narrative of something seen as precious and delicate being snatched away, defiled, destroyed by evil forces that lurk in the shadows just outside the bedroom window. It's whiteness under siege. It's innocence and optimism crushed by cruel reality. It's a flower smashed by a rock,” Robinson wrote.

News networks and newspapers have tried to justify unequal coverage by saying they give most attention to the people their audiences would most identify with. Likewise, media executives have argued that privileged kids disappear and die less frequently, and therefore are more newsworthy in their unusualness.

Nobody, even the harshest media critics, is arguing that every dead or missing child should get the same coverage. Rather, an awareness of Missing White Girl Syndrome raises legitimate questions about fairness and accuracy, perception and reality, right and wrong.

“It reinforces an unequal valuation of children, causing less attention to paid to black children who are missing and less pressure on police and prosecutors to investigate. It creates the impression that that's just the way it is for black kids — they get abducted or killed. So people get to be apathetic about the unconscious inequities in our country,” says Roberts.

“The damsels in distress may make for easy human interest stories, but I can't account for them in terms of news value,” Maynard adds. “I don't think there's an epidemic of missing white kids that we need to worry about. From that point, it's troubling. It speaks to the dumbing down of the news.”