KTVU news anchor Frank Somerville, the adoptive dad of a Black teen girl, tried to have a short tagline added to coverage of the Petito case questioning the disparity in media coverage. His station had him “suspended indefinitely,” The Mercury News reported, citing unnamed sources. “The veteran anchor was told that the tagline was inappropriate and he apparently pushed back on it,” journalist Chuck Barney wrote. “There was no word on how heated the discussion got.”
Barney reported that Somerville wanted to draw attention to media “often disproportionately” covering “tragedies involving young White women, while largely ignoring similar cases involving women of color and Indigenous people.”
Journalist Mara Schiavocampo explained the harm in doing so in a CNN segment, noting that her point isn’t that journalists shouldn’t be covering the Petito case. “What it is saying is that there’s an overrepresentation in media when white women go missing and an underrepresentation in media when Black, brown, and Indigenous women go missing,” Schiavocampo said. “So for example, Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway, Chandra Levy, these are all household names. We can all think of their faces when we say their names, but I’m willing to bet that not one watching or listening can name one single Black or brown woman who went missing who became a household name.”
Tymeah James, 16, has been missing since around noon Friday when she failed to return home from Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento, California. Her mother, Yolanda Holmes, told The Sacramento Bee “this is not like her.” “She is a straight-A student,” Holmes said. “She works, she goes to school, she’s on the cheer team, and she praises our church.”
Arianna Fitts was 2-years-old when she and her mother, 32-year-old Nicole Fitts, went missing. Nicole’s body was found five years ago in San Francisco’s McLaren Park, but the child is still missing. “The San Francisco Police Department continues to actively investigate this incident and we will continue to investigate this matter as long as it takes,” the police department said on the anniversary of its homicide investigation into Nicole’s death in April.
Schiavocampo told CNN the disparity with regards to media coverage has real life implications for women of color. “Why,” she asked. “This makes them less safe because perpetrators, predators, know that if you want to get away with murder, you seek the victim that no one is going to look for.”
In Wyoming, where Petito’s body was found, more than 700 Native American men, women, and children have gone missing between 2011 and 2020, according to a report The Seattle Times covered from the Wyoming’s Taskforce on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons. The task force pointed out not only the discrepancy in the amount of coverage but also a discrepancy in the actual coverage itself. “Twelve percent of the articles about Indigenous missing persons contained a photo of the missing person, whereas 33% of the articles about White missing persons contained their photo,” the task force found. “Negative character framing [emphasizing negative aspects of the victim’s life, family, and community that are unrelated to the crime itself] was found in 16% of the articles about Indigenous people.
“None of the articles about missing White people included negative character framing.”
Abigail Echo-Hawk, who the The Seattle Times reported is an enrolled citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, helped create innovative research reports on murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls and on sexual violence Indigenous women face in Seattle. Echo-Hawk told The Seattle Times as Native people, “we feel for [Petito’s] family and absolutely stand with them and their grief and wanting to see justice for them,” but it’s important to acknowledge the “discrepancy that exists when a white woman goes missing, as opposed to a Native woman or another person of color.”
“What we see is systematic bias, institutional and structural racism and the vilifying and the placing of blame on the victims themselves and their families for when these people go missing and murdered,” Echo-Hawk said. “And what we see is absolute injustice. And that is why Washington state ranks one of the highest for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.”
She said when Native girls and women go missing, authorities ask: “’Did she run away? Was she out drinking?’ … How these victims are talked about places the blame of their murders, places the blame of them going missing, on them, and everybody’s life matters,” she said.
Journalist Erika Marie Rivers created Our Black Girls, a website documenting the overlooked stories of Black girls and women who have went missing in 2018. She does it by herself after working her night shift in entertainment journalism, NPR reported. Rivers told the radio nonprofit that in many of her stories, the victims are “walking down the street or they’re going to the store or ‘they’ll be right back,’ and they just disappear.”
“It could happen to me at any time,” she said. “And I know that there are a lot of stories like that about girls and women who look like me, so why am I not seeing them as much as I’m seeing everything else? And then it became, why am I waiting for somebody else to pick up this banner when I’m the one who’s passionate about it?”
It’s a noble question for Rivers to ask of herself, but the questions I’m most interested in are: Why don’t more newsrooms care when people of color go missing? Why is the onus on a single journalist working in her spare time?