The subjects of HBO’s ‘Black and Missing’ say media outlets need to cover the stories of missing people of color before they become trendy

The subjects of HBO’s ‘Black and Missing’ say media outlets need to cover the stories of missing people of color before they become trendy

  • Nearly 40% of missing people in 2020 were Black, despite Black Americans making up only 13% of the population.
  • The HBO docuseries “Black and Missing” follows the work of the Black and Missing Foundation, which raises awareness about the issue.
  • The nonprofit’s founders told Insider the media needs to be better at proactively covering the cases of missing people of color.

When Tamika Huston, a Black woman, was reported missing in May 2004 from her home in Spartanburg, South Carolina, her family struggled to get national media coverage on her disappearance.

Months later, Lori Hacking, a white woman in Salt Lake City, Utah, was reported missing, prompting a wave of national media coverage.

“Tamika’s aunt reached out to those same reporters, same networks, same programs, and there was no interest in Tamika’s story at all,” Natalie Wilson, who is featured in the documentary “Black and Missing,” told Insider. 

The disparate media interest in those cases inspired Natalie and her sister-in-law, Derrica Wilson, to dig further into the issue, which eventually led to the founding Maryland-based non-profit, the Black and Missing Foundation, 13 years ago.

The docuseries, which premiered this week, follows Natalie, a public relations expert, and Derrica, a former police officer. They do on-the-ground work to bring attention to cases of missing people of color and help families track down their missing loved ones.

In 2020, nearly 40% of people reported missing in the US were people of color, primarily Black, while Black Americans made up just 13% of the population. Cases of missing Black people take four times as long to solve as other groups, according to the docuseries.

In an interview with Insider, Natalie and Derrica said the lack of media coverage is a common frustration that the families of missing Black people experience.

‘Do not wait for a story to become trendy’

The term “Missing White Woman Syndrome” has been used to refer to the media and public fascination with cases of missing white women, especially in contrast to the lack of interest in the cases of missing people of color. The most recent example of such fascination was the case of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old white woman whose disappearance on a cross-country road trip in August became a national story.

Derrica said their hearts go out to the Petito family, but that they were constantly hearing from families they work with who asked: “Why is her case any different from mine?”

At the same time Petito’s case made headlines, David Robinson, the father of missing Black man Daniel Robinson, told  Insider about what it was like searching for his son without media attention on his case.

Robinson said he “hit brick wall after brick wall” and eventually hired a private investigator because the police investigation around his son’s disappearance wasn’t progressing. 

Natalie said Petito’s disappearance helped shine a light on the unequal media coverage when Black people go missing, adding it should serve as a “wake up call for media outlets around the country to really look at their practices and whether they have conscious or unconscious biases.”

“They need to do a better job with media coverage for all missing people,” she said.

Derrica said media outlets need to proactively cover the disappearances of missing people of color: “Do not wait for a story to become trendy. You be the breaking news.”

Since the Petito case, Derrica and Natalie have been invited to do more interviews on the issue of missing people of color and use the opportunities to draw attention to specific unsolved cases.

They have also recently been invited to newsrooms to brainstorm ways in which journalists can ensure they’re covering stories equally. And they are encouraging media outlets to diversify their newsrooms to ensure a broader spectrum of stories get told.

The docuseries, which was three years in the making, is just the first step, they said, but they hope it helps move media outlets past the conversation and towards taking action that will produce real change in the stories covered.

“If they’re not being covered, there’s no sense of urgency,” Natalie said. “We all have a responsibility. We need to care as a nation about our missing individuals, because these are not faceless, nameless people. These are valuable members of our community.”

Have a news tip? Contact this reporter at kvlamis@insider.com.

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