Monday, November 9, 2009

The Sad Disparities Of Media Coverage on Missing Women

There was a great post on Sociological Images this past week on the sexualization of young women reported missing. This got me thinking about an issue that really bugs me: the coverage of missing women in the media, and the victim-blaming that goes along with it.

Last month, a young woman named Morgan Harrington went missing after attending a rock concert. On Nancy Grace's show, Harrington was referred to as a "co-ed beauty" in the headline. Check out these headlines, running under the screen: "Cops trace co-ed beauty's last hour;" "20 year old co-ed beauty vanishes at rock concert;" "missing co-ed beauty last seen on bridge."
(For the record: when I got my car this past summer, it came with three free months of satellite radio. When I would drive the 45-minute commute to my internship, I would usually listen to talk radio like NPR. Sometimes, I'd switch the channels around to see what else the satellite radio offered, and Nancy Grace's CNN show would come on. I found it very tabloid-y and sensational, so I'm not surprised at the way she treated Harrington's disappearance).

While it is great that CNN is covering the case of this young woman, which will hopefully assist in finding her, it is troubling that instead of referring to her by name, she is objectified as a "co-ed beauty." In fact, it seems as though every time the media breathlessly covers the case of a missing woman, the victim is a young, attractive white woman.

Quick, name the first few missing persons cases that you can think of! I came up with Natalee Holloway, JonBenet Ramsey, Laci Peterson, and Chandra Levy . The disappearance and murder of these young women is certainly tragic. But why do we never hear about the disappearance of women of color, or women who are not attractive members of the middle or upper class? If the women I mentioned need media coverage so their families and the police can help find them, then why do women of color not need this media coverage as well?

Think of the developing case of Anthony Sowell. This man was a convicted rapist, and police recently found 11 decomposing bodies of African-American women in his house. Family members of some of the women tried to file missing person's reports, but the police refused to file them. Some of the victims were involved in drugs and prostitution, and the police mocked their family members, saying things like, "She'll be back when the drugs dry up." Because the missing women in the Sowell case were poor, African-American, and in some cases involved in drugs, they did not elicit the "sympathy" from the general public as a young, attractive, middle-class white woman would.
However, the women in the Sowell case deserved to be respected by the police and the media just as much as Natalee Holloway or Laci Peterson. It is disheartening and despicable that the local authorities did not take the family member's requests for missing person's reports seriously. If they had followed up on these reports, perhaps they would have caught Sowell sooner, and not as many women have been killed.

Another aspect of this issue is the rampant victim-blaming that occurs. I remember a few years ago, when Natalee Holloway went missing during her senior class trip. I can recall news stations, radio stations, and newspaper editorials chastising her for going out on the town and drinking. I heard people at my job say things like, "Well she was dressed like a slut and getting drunk with a bunch of guys. She got what was coming to her." Many people also blamed her parents for allowing her to go on the trip.

One hears things like this a lot when a young woman goes missing. People jump to blame the victim, instead of even discussing the perpetrator. It's as though as young women, we should all just assume that if we wear a short skirt, have a drink, go on a date, or dance at a bar, someone is going to kidnap and murder us, and if we do not take the "proper" precautions, whatever happens is our fault.

Hopefully, some good will come out of the Sowell case: authorities will be pressured to actually do their jobs, and take all missing persons cases seriously, and the media will pay attention to the victims of Sowell's crimes regardless of socioeconomic status or race


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