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BuzzFeed Claims America's Missing Persons System Is Racist



“Lost amid the flurry of attention that focuses on missing white girls and women are the names of black girls who disappear.”

That’s the headline of BuzzFeed’s latest investigative report blasted onto the page-two website Monday morning, ostensibly as an attempt to establish journalism cred by a site known for telling readers which Harry Potter character they are based on their favorite ice cream flavor.

Using an admittedly debunked “news” story, cherry-picked crime data and a slew of straw man assertions, BuzzFeed’s Jessica Testa attempts to argue that missing white girls enjoy a derth of media coverage, while kidnapped black girls are left to fade from memory, all thanks to a racist media and a hateful society that couldn’t care less about little black kids.

Of course, she fails miserably.

In her article, Testa tells the admittedly heartrending story of ShyShy Pate, an 8-year-old girl kidnapped just a block away from her house in Unadilla, Georgia in 1998. Born to a poor, black family in a small town in a southern state, BuzzFeed claims ShyShy’s disappearance 19 years ago is just one example of a systemic race problem in America’s search for missing children, and in the news media’s coverage of them.

[N]early all of the cases that graduate from local to national news have something in common. It’s what the late journalist Gwen Ifill in 2004 casually coined "missing white woman syndrome"...She was referring to the media’s fixation on the disappearances of white women and girls, often upper- and middle-class white women and girls — think Elizabeth Smart — compared with the lack of coverage given to missing people of color and those with low incomes.

To back up her theory that white girls who disappear are covered far more than black girls, particularly poor ones, Testa points to a "fake news" story out of Washington, D.C. from back in March.

Earlier this year, D.C. police tweeted a list of all the children currently missing in the nation’s capital – a list that, at the time, included 14 black girls.

In reading the tweets, many D.C. residents, including city officials and members of Congress, mistakenly believed all 14 girls had gone missing in a single 24-hour period of time, and that the unprecedented rash of kidnappings was being ignored by a racist media. The rumor prompted immediate outcries from activists and celebrities, spawned the hashtag #MissingDCGirls, and launched a demand from the Congressional Black Caucus for an investigation by the Justice Department.

It turns out the outrage was factually baseless, as Testa herself admits:

The number, it turned out, was hugely inaccurate, a botched interpretation of police data. But it resonated with so many people in the age of Black Lives Matter and on the heels of the Women’s March because it seemed like it could be true.

It could be true. Never mind that the story was the very definition of “fake news,” gaining traction on social media platforms where false-flag information spreads like wildfire among those already holding an axe to grind. It could be true – and apparently, that makes it so.

Moving on from the non-story that ultimately proved a non-point, Testa cites FBI data from 2016 showing that year, 443,053 missing juveniles under 18 years old were reported in the United States (including those who were found alive or identified as runaways). Of those, about 56 percent were women, and 39 percent were black – a statistic Testa is quick to mention in her article.

What she doesn’t mention, however, is that 60 percent of these children were white. In fact, the FBI reports 264,443 white children were reported missing in 2016. And, unless I unknowingly slipped into some coma and missed the avalanche of Dateline specials, the vast majority of these news stories didn’t make it outside the A3 headlines of their local papers, either.

This is not to say we shouldn’t continually challenge ourselves to better respond to missing children, which is clearly a chronic problem across our nation. Any decent person, regardless of skin color, should and likely would agree that all missing children deserve the utmost effort from their communities in finding them. Those who can be found safely should be, and those whose fates turn out to be more tragic deserve the same dignity and justice owed to any other innocent human being.

But to complain that round-the-clock national news coverage isn’t given to every single case – whether black or white – is ludicrous, and frankly displays an outright denial that there are only 24 hours in a day. Not every missing person, child or otherwise, can or will be covered in coast-to-coast reports. Neither will every murder victim.

And while no less valuable, it is true that children who go missing from neighborhoods where such crime is highly atypical will probably garner more camera time than a child who disappears from a community where kidnappings and murders are more common. If a white child in Logan, West Virginia was kidnapped, it might make the local paper; if Beyoncé’s kid were kidnapped, we’d know about it before the police. It’s a sad and simple fact we perpetuate every time we flip on a Sunday night news special or click some sensationalized headline on Facebook. If this strikes you as racist, consider that even Black Lives Matter all but ignores the black-on-black murder rate in Chicago, which at this point surprises exactly no one.

So yes, employing your journalistic skills to promote finding missing children is admirable. But exploiting those missing children in an attempt to fuel an already volatile race narrative devoid of any actual proof, based on skewed data and publicly debunked rumors because you think they "could be true"? That isn’t.