Last week, Bonnie Sweeten, a 38-year-old suburban Philadelphia mom who told police she and her nine-year-old daughter were abducted after a traffic accident, was found to be lying. This is the crackpot who prompted a national search because she allegedly called from the trunk of a car saying that two black guys, in a black Cadillac no less, had abducted Sweeten and her daughter and stuffed them in the trunk.
The media went wild with the story. The Today show even had Sweeten's ex-husband (and father of the child) come on television and make a plea to her captors. He wept and begged the "captors" to let them go because they had not done anything and were innocent. Even though authorities were "skeptical" because they had discovered that Sweeten had lied about her whereabouts based on cell phone tower records, they proceeded anyway. Authorities launched a massive effort to find Sweeten and her child.
News agencies and local, state and federal authorities came together in pursuit of these "armed and dangerous" black men who had "taken" this woman and her child. Where did they find her? Disney World. She was 1,000 miles away from where she had been "taken" and only 30 hours after making the first of six distress calls. There were never any black men involved. She made that up.
While all of this was happening, Nikki McPhatter of Charlotte -- a real missing person -- was dead in her car, 100 miles from where she was last seen three weeks prior to this incident. She had been shot and burned beyond recognition. Her story had received scant attention in the local media and virtually none in the national press. After friends and family rallied local support for the case through social networking sites like Facebook, the story began to receive coverage in the press.
How sad is it that a real missing person received little-to-no media coverage, while a fake missing person had the world placed at her feet?
The only difference between Sweeten and McPhatter is that of race. Sweeten is white (and a liar -- a rich one -- she covered $1 million bail), and McPhatter is black (and actually a victim). The lack of coverage that missing women of color receive is a practice that must end, along with white women lying on black men or lying just in general about being abducted, putting others at risk because some want to run away from life. (Runaway bride or the backwards "B" carved into the face anyone? But that's another article.)
I know white women go missing all of the time, so I am not saying that they do not deserve the media attention that they get. They absolutely do and even in the case of Sweeten, I'm sure that authorities thought it best to err on the side of safety, even though her story was sketchy, than to risk not doing anything and having a woman and child injured or killed at the hands of "criminals."
Having said that, the fact that the same level of concern is not shown for the safety of black and brown women is unacceptable.
According to an article titled "Double Standard: Missing Black Women Still Get Less Media Than Whites" in the Seattle Medium, average-looking men, women and children from a variety of economic, social and ethnic backgrounds made up the more than 105,000 active missing persons in America last year (2008). But national media operations often fail to cover what is in fact a very diverse missing persons population -- African-Americans. Some observers believe race is the factor.
In the article, Ernie Suggs, vice president of print for the National Association of Black Journalists stated, "There is a culture in America that tends to sympathize with the blond White woman instead of the braided black woman." This is evident by the lack of coverage that missing black women receive.
In May 2004, Tamika Huston, then 24, disappeared from Spartanburg, S.C. Huston was missing for more than a year. One year later, her case received national media attention, not as the story of a missing person -- but a missing person who was ignored by mainstream media because of her race. It was later discovered that her boyfriend had killed her, but only after a story aired on America's Most Wanted.
Her family voiced their frustration at their inability to get any traction from the media on this case when it first happened. She may never have been found had the media not decided to cover her story. Subsequently, her family has started The Tamika Huston Foundation for the Missing to provide help for the missing, particularly women of color.
Media coverage is important because it puts pressure on authorities to actively search for the person; it places pressure on the perpetrator who fears getting caught; it also helps to give information that may help others identify the perpetrator or to help find the victim. As was the case with Sweeten, it also exposes false claims.
The same level of attention that helped authorities locate Sweeten in another state at Disney World is the same level of attention that would have helped authorities to locate Nikki McPhatter. Could they have saved her from her perpetrator? Probably not, but they could have brought closure to her friends and family much sooner. They could have sent the message that ALL missing persons are important and deserve the same level of attention, media coverage and protection under the law.