Two attractive, intelligent, young Charlotte-area women tragically disappear. Foul play appears to be involved. Which woman gets more media attention — the black one or the white one?
The standard answer is that the attractive white female always does. That's what the media has told us about its own coverage in the disappearance of Union County teen Phylicia Barnes — that her case didn't get as much media attention as Natalee Holloway's did because Barnes is black.
It's what Barnes' mother claims. Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi also placed the blame for his department's failure to find solid leads in the case on media apathy due to Barnes' race.
But is it true?
Barnes' thin-air disappearance from her sister's apartment in Baltimore, where Barnes had gone for a visit, matches the oddity of Natalee Hollway's 2005 disappearance while on vacation in Aruba with classmates. A search of Lexis-Nexis, a database of newspaper articles and TV news transcripts, shows that within 48 hours of her disappearance, Holloway, who is white, was featured on MSNBC and CBS. It took six days before Barnes' case debuted on CNN.
In the week after she vanished, Holloway's disappearance merited 13 national television news stories; Barnes' case got two. Six weeks after Holloway disappeared, 94 national news stories had been done about it. She'd been featured on every network. Barnes' case, meanwhile, had merited 24 national news stories, half of them on CNN.
Holloway's case clearly generated more media interest than Barnes' case. But should we automatically assume that's because of race? Few missing persons cases in the last decade have gotten the media attention Holloway's did, yet thousands of people have vanished, never to be seen again.
Enter missing local woman No. 2, Gaston College student Jamie Fraley, 22. Intelligent and photogenic, she vanished in April 2008, leaving behind a locked apartment, her keys and her purse. Local media covered the case, including a recent in-depth follow-up by The Charlotte Observer. But unlike Barnes' case, Lexis-Nexis shows no record of Fraley's disappearance ever being mentioned on the national news. That breaks all the rules, because Fraley is white.
In fact, Lexis-Nexis shows that there have been more news stories questioning whether the media has been racist in its coverage of Barnes' case than there have been in total about Fraley's.
Who do the police care about more? The paper reported that two family members and a retired forensic detective who volunteers her time still search for Fraley weekly. Fraley's family told the Observer they were unhappy with the initial police investigation.
Barnes' mother also initially complained about the seriousness of the police investigation.
But as she quickly turned up the heat on national TV appearances, officers combed through local neighborhoods, took to the air in choppers and brought in bloodhounds. Barnes' face stares at drivers from billboards along 1-95. (Fraley's had one billboard erected for her by a nonprofit.)
Gugliemli recently told MSNBC that there are nearly 100 law enforcement personnel working on Barnes' case, including Baltimore police, FBI, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Maryland State police.
As part of a news organization, at least one missing persons report crosses my desk weekly. The missing are from every racial and age category. Rarely do you hear about them again after the first press release from police. If a missing persons case is going to be big, you'll get a second press release from family or friends giving the media a hook to report on to keep the story going, usually a press conference or an update in the case. But that almost never happens.
Being young and attractive helps, but without a media-savvy family member willing to bang on media doors and log long hours on Facebook, the case quickly falls off the media's radar, if it makes it there at all. The ability to give a good interview is critical as well. Barnes' mom is one of the most media-savvy parents I've seen in years. That's why she's getting coverage other parents of missing young women, regardless of their race, haven't. If anything, Barnes' case proves that if race is an impediment to getting your story out there, it isn't much of one.