Feature image via @pettyblackgirl
In the past month, hashtags such as #missingDCgirls, #findourgirls, and #protectourgirls have circulated on social media in an effort to bring light to the crisis of missing black and latina girls in Washington, D.C. This awareness campaign has been spearheaded not by the news media, but by black and brown women on platforms like Twitter. These activists have distributed images such as the one featured in the hopes of communicating the gravity of the D.C. crisis, a task that would normally be fulfilled by coverage from mainstream news sources. Because of the efforts of people like Nani, @pettyblackgirl on Twitter, mainstream news outlets finally began covering the issue.
This isn’t the first time activists have tried drawing attention to the consistent lack of media coverage surrounding missing black and latina girls. We reached out to Nani, who explained that this information has long been common knowledge for many black women, who have been tirelessly working to get people to care: “[We’ve known] about the 64,000+ black women that have gone missing in the U.S. for a while. Many black women have been tweeting about it for years . . . it just never got much attention until now.”
We also asked Nani about the response they’ve received from people engaging with their tweets on the matter.
“I do have people who are dismissing it as ‘they’re just running away’ or ‘you’re making it a bigger deal than it is’ or ‘some of them have already been found’ and it gets frustrating,” she said. “Because, although I am happy about the two or three girls that have been found, there are many more who are still missing and continue to go missing everyday.”
Indeed, news coverage of these issues has been greatly dismissive, and echoes the skeptical engagement on Twitter that Nani describes. Rather than revealing a genuine concern for the missing girls, this coverage is telling of the way the media gives the police the benefit of the doubt, while painting activists as ‘exaggerating’. Instead of dedicating articles to the missing girls and their last whereabouts, outlets focus on the facts some of the trending posts got wrong, circularly justifying their own silence on the matter.
The headlines alone express the dismissive nature of many such articles. The title of one BBC piece questions the validity of the claims made by activists on social media: “Are Washington girls really going missing?” Similarly, Snopes framed their (albeit more substantial) article on the subject with a question: “Did 14 Washington, D.C., Girls Go Missing Within A 24-Hour Period?” Before even the first sentence of actual coverage, media outlets emphasize that assessing the claims of activists on social media will be their focus.
The BBC article directly blames social media for triggering a supposedly unreasonable panic: “Many see the missing person tweets but often miss the follow-up tweets once someone has been found, says Gertz [a spokesperson for the D.C. police department]. The result is a sense that girls in D.C. are going missing at an alarming rate ‒ and that no one is paying attention.”
Wouldn’t this indeed be the case when social media users are having to act as journalists, navigating an imperfect medium like Twitter in an effort to bring the issue to light?
A D.C. news outlet’s coverage of the story parallels that of the BBC and others, but takes a notably defensive stance:
“. . . WUSA9 is and has been dedicated to finding missing children in our area. Every day we share photos of children that police ask us to share and we use the #BringThemHome.” Instead of any accountability or acknowledgment that WUSA9 could have done more, or even that other news outlets were lacking in their coverage, WUSA9 took the opportunity to boast, preserve their reputation, and dismiss activists. The ‘missing white woman syndrome,’ a term defined by NYU professor Charlton McIlwain as describing the way in which news agencies provide coverage on missing white girls rather than racialized girls, is real. Statistically speaking, only 20% of reported stories focus on missing black children.
Because they assume the expertise of police, outlets take police statements as the gospel truth, uncritically echoing their insinuations that the number of missing girls is a non-issue due to declining missing persons statistics. Portraying activists as irrational and minimizing their concerns, especially by focussing on the police’s response rather than the mobilization of local activists like Chanel Dickerson, is a specific ploy to undermine the seriousness of the issue at hand, and thus to retroactively justify the media’s silence. We know that there have been cases where police have dismissed reports of missing racialized girls and not looked into them any further. And the ‘experts’ being quoted and interviewed by news outlets like WUSA9 have been employees of the D.C. police department. What about the activists who began this conversation in the first place?
Evidently, one of the many responsibilities of news outlets is to highlight and correct inaccuracies and misinformation being circulated. For example, a viral image claimed 12 young girls had gone missing in less than 24 hours, and that wasn’t the case. Not only should journalism is to question information being circulated; it should also provide an array of perspectives on that information. But all of these news outlets have fixated on one thing: are claims by activists true? And by the end of the articles, it is concluded that, yes, young black and brown girls are going missing. And yet, instead of focussing on what is next, and how to help, nearly all note that annually, D.C.’s number of missing girl’s has gone down.
Other news outlets completely dismiss the seriousness of the disappearances by emphasizing the apparent agencies of the girls that went missing. “Large percentage of missing teens voluntarily leave home and are located soon after, D.C. Police say” reads an online article of the D.C. chapter of Fox 5 news. TMZ’s title is similar: “D.C. Missing Girls, Cops Says They’re Runaways Not Crime Victims.” Highlighting the agency of these underaged girls naturalizes their disappearance, positioning them as unworthy of our attention and concern. In fact, runaways are that much more likely to be subject to kidnapping, child sex trafficking, and other dangerous crimes. As Nani explains, “dismissing [the disappearances] as runaways takes [away] responsibility from the police to investigate.”
Ultimately, the activists’ efforts have paid off. There has been mainstream news coverage; numerous celebrities have spoken out on the crisis including Nicki Minaj; coverage has expanded across Facebook and Twitter; and D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser said the city would dedicate more money and MPD officers to find the missing children. More left-leaning outlets such as Vox and BET have dedicated articles to the importance of campaigns like the one spearheaded by Nani. The potential for social media awareness campaigns to be successful is clear; the next step is to hold mainstream media outlets responsible for failing to provide fair and timely coverage on critical issues.