Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Missing in Cleveland -- and in the Media As Well

The “Imperial Eleven” of Cleveland – women whose decomposed bodies were found in the home of an ex-convict who lived on Imperial Avenue in that city – again illustrates how impoverished black women living at the margins of society can disappear with little notice by their community and the media who cover crime and social ills. The inattention to the vanishing of so many women in a community has fueled anger on urban radio and on blogs such as Cocoa Chicks Critiques, who wonder where the national media attention is when people who go missing are members of minority groups.

In the most recent issue of Media Report to Women (Fall 2009), Mia Moody of Baylor University, Bruce Dorries of Mary Baldwin College, and Harriet Blackwell, a recent Mary Baldwin graduate, compared media coverage of missing women, black and white. The significant difference in the prominence and durability of coverage of missing white women, in contrast with black victims, is not just a matter of journalistic blind spots; it actually influences what kind of results their bereaved families get, the authors say: “Media attention can affect how local authorities handle a case. Victims who receive national attention, inevitably, receive more aid from local and national police and investigative teams,” they write.

Based on their analysis of four cases, the team said, “There was a general template for how the press talked about missing women but it differed based on race. Mainstream press coverage of white women often included interviews of relatives and friends of the victim, a description of her neighborhood, and lots of information about the person’s personality. On the other hand, black-owned media and mainstream coverage of missing black women usually focused on the disparity in coverage, the person’s dismal circumstances, and the past of the victim’s abusive male. Although the media did not overtly cover class in its analysis of missing victims, reporters used indicators such as occupations, homeownership and neighborhood descriptions to help viewers and readers determine their social standing.” The upshot, said the authors, “is a clear bias that favors young, attractive white women, almost to the exclusion of black women.”

This issue of Media Report to Women containing these disturbing findings went to press at almost the same time that bodies were discovered in alleged killer Anthony Sowell’s Imperial Avenue home. Will the shocking discovery in Cleveland finally be a wakeup call to police who allocate resources to solving these cases and to the journalists who cover them?

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