By Larry Lee
President, Publisher The Sacramento Observer

The tragic disappearance and death of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito captured the nation’s attention the last few weeks. Let me first say, as a father of two daughters, I pray for God’s peace to comfort her family and hope that the perpetrator of her murder can be brought to justice swiftly.

However, the disproportionate national media attention given to Petito’s case has once again triggered African American families across the country to cry out for justice and attention for their missing sons and daughters.

Never was this more true than in Sacramento recently where we had two missing persons cases within weeks of each other. As reported in The Observer (“When Ours Go Missing”), teenagers Tymeah James, 16, and Emani Coleman, 18, had gone missing and their family members felt they were receiving very little support from authorities to help them get their girls back. Meanwhile, they desperately called for more media attention to help them.

Their feelings of helplessness are shared by thousands of Black families across America. According to the organization Black And Missing, more than 200,000 African Americans were reported missing in 2020. Nearly 40 percent of the country’s missing persons are Black, while Blacks make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population. Why are Black families so disproportionately impacted by this issue? The problem stems from cultural and racial bias in both law enforcement and mainstream media. Many of us are familiar with AMBER Alerts, which assist in the search for and safe recovery of an abducted child under the age of 17.  The alerts are broadcast through radio, TV, road signs, cell phones and other data-enabled devices. 

The problem for families of missing loved ones is the alerts are only issued when a law enforcement agency determines that a person has been abducted and is in imminent danger. 

A similar assessment must be made to activate Ashanti Alerts, which assist in the recovery of missing persons 17 years of age or older. The Ashanti Alerts are named after Ashanti Billie, the 19-year-old Black woman who was abducted and killed in Virginia in 2017.

Ebony Berry holds a photo of her missing daughter Emani Coleman, 18, whom she has not seen since September 13. Berry is among the thousands of Black mothers across the country who say authorities and mainstream media don’t give missing Black persons adequate attention. (OBSERVER photo by Russell Stiger Jr.)

For African Americans, cultural biases play a negative role in the response to a missing person. Flippant responses from law enforcement such as these make Black families feel there is little sense of urgency when it comes to recovering their loved ones:

• “Maybe they ‘just’ ran away!”

• “Maybe they are hanging out with a bad crowd.”

• “Maybe he/she is with a sexual partner.”

Law enforcement agencies must do a better job of training officers and detectives to respond and react more sensitively toward Black and underrepresented communities. Failure to immediately activate a missing person alert, results in the loss of precious time — time that families don’t have to waste.

This was the case for James and Coleman. In both cases, authorities determined that the girls were not “at-risk,” thus leaving the families to go at it alone — calling on the community through social media to assist in the search — during this traumatic period of uncertainty. 

Law enforcement is not solely responsible for the lack of attention to missing Black persons. Mainstream media has not only historically underreported the disappearance of Blacks but “overreported” the disappearance of White women — so much so, that the legendary late Black journalist Gwen Ifill coined the term “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” This media disparity mostly stems from the lack of diversity in mainstream newsrooms. Media executives and editors tend to be white and male. When a mainstream newsroom diversifies, it has mostly been in the increase of white women in leadership roles. Thus, it is easier for newsrooms to report on the people and issues that reflect their own lives. The disappearance of a white woman through a white supremacy lens feels like a more important story because there is a clear “victim” in that story. However, a missing Black person through that same lens appears less important.

Changing this culture has proven to be very difficult for mainstream newsrooms, but we need national media to cover more equitably the lives of diverse communities. That means more diverse voices in newsrooms and intentional efforts by leadership to actively listen to such voices. In television, it means more than just diverse talent on camera, it also means diverse producers and news directors behind the camera. 

In one case, Bay Area news anchor Frank Somerville, who is white and the adoptive father of a Black daughter, fought with his news director and ultimately got suspended after adding a tagline at the end of the station’s report that questioned the intensity of the coverage Petito was receiving compared to missing Black girls. The Oakland NAACP is among the groups calling for Somerville to be reinstated.

The Black Press has always reported on Black lives in their fullness. The experience that Black families feel when their loved ones go missing is considerably different than that of white Americans — all of this during a terribly traumatic time. It is important for all members of the community, if they need support, to feel they can count on institutions that claim to serve them — further adding to the rallying cry of this century that Black Lives Matter.

Larry Lee

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the Sacramento case of Tymeah James, she was found safe after disappearing for about a week. As of this writing, authorities determined that Emani Coleman is not at risk and she is still missing.

Larry Lee is the publisher of the Sacramento Observer.