Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor
National news outlets in the United States have a long history of devoting a disproportionate amount of resources to stories about young missing white women, while ignoring other missing persons cases as not newsworthy, and thus dismissing them.
Recently, the Columbia Journalism Review released a tool where users input their age, gender, location, race and ethnicity to estimate how many media stories they would garner should they go missing. (The tool predicts that young, white women will get exponentially more coverage than others.)
Given how many people go missing every year (over 600,000 according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System) and how few stories actually make national news, it’s reasonable to question the criteria national newsrooms use for covering a missing person as a national story. The truth is, it’s very subjective and heavily dependent on local media, which in turn often relies on local law enforcement for initial coverage.
Recognizing this historic racial bias, some local and national news outlets have attempted to be more inclusive when determining which missing people to cover.
But that doesn’t solve another problem: status. We are more interested in high status people. That status may come from wealth, a large number of Instagram followers, attending a prestigious college, or simply being young and beautiful.
On the other side of status are commonly held assumptions about race and class made by journalists. When marginalized people go missing, rather than sounding an alarm, journalists sometimes react with a lack of concern.
By selecting a misrepresentative group of stories to tell about missing people, the national media cumulatively distort systemic problems. For instance, Black girls and women go missing at disproportionate rates. And when Black Americans go missing they remain missing for four times longer than white Americans, according to the Black and Missing Foundation, the subject of an HBO documentary series.
Against this backdrop, this week we address an audience member’s question about a recent NPR report on a missing college student. We look at how NPR decides which missing people to cover. Read on to see what we learned and our recommendations.
We also spotlight two stories: a narrative about one woman’s scary experience seeking emergency medical treatment for a miscarriage in a state that implemented a restrictive abortion law, and a story of first graders learning about their emotions in the classroom using puppets.
FROM THE INBOX
Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor’s inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.
Covering missing women
Gavino Villa wrote on Oct. 20: I’m not trying to discredit this story [about a missing Princeton University student] but why is this NATIONAL news? Because she is attending Princeton? …
In this particular case, 20-year-old Misrach Ewunetie was last seen on Oct. 14 near a Princeton University campus building. NPR published two stories on Oct. 20. The first, published in the early morning, documented the search for Ewunetie. The second, published around 8 p.m., reported that she had been found dead near campus tennis courts. Police have still not released the cause of death.
NPR evaluates coverage case by case, supervising editor Kevin Drew told us in an email. He supervises Ayana Archie, the reporter who wrote the story for NPR. Part of that evaluation is asking: “Is the case newsworthy and of interest to a national audience?” he wrote. Additionally, NPR makes decisions “in part by scrutinizing other national and regional outlets,” he said.
The biggest factor in covering this story, Drew said, was Ewunetie being a woman of color, and the media’s “poor track record” of reporting on missing girls and women of color. “Sadly, that is still the case, in my view,” he said.
“In this case, a young woman whose parents had emigrated from Africa had gone missing on a university campus, which students and their families traditionally see as a safe space,” Drew said in a follow-up email. “The fact that she was found dead on that campus underscored that concern.”
We reached out to Jean Murley, a true crime scholar and an English professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design, to help assess NPR’s decision to join other mainstream outlets in covering this specific story. Last year Murley was interviewed by The New Yorker about the history of Americans’ fascination with certain missing women’s cases.
“I think it’s wonderful that NPR is trying to fill out and create more equity in their coverage of cases like this,” Murley told us. “But inevitably we’re going to run up against this issue of, ‘Well, yeah, we want to hear about the Black women or the women of color who are of a certain social class and missing.'”
Murley said both racial and class disparities exist in coverage of missing women. “When we put that into the mix, we get maybe a story about a brown woman who went missing from Princeton … but what about all the people of color, women of color in particular, who are missing and are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds? They are completely ignored in mainstream media.”
Although NPR doesn’t currently have specific guidelines for stories about missing people, it would certainly be possible to draft guiding criteria for journalists to consider when deciding whether a story of a missing person rises to national importance.
Such guidance might encourage stories on missing people that illuminate an uncovered trend or hold public safety officials accountable for their response. Additional guidance could encourage stories that delve into the larger systems that help find people who go missing. And finally, such guidance might discourage stories where the status of the missing person is the only element driving newsworthiness.
It’s tempting for newsrooms to replace a broken system for covering a handful of missing people with another system that’s less flawed, but still falling short on the more significant injustices.
Given the historical inequalities in media coverage, there should be a clear journalistic purpose for covering any missing person’s case in a national outlet. — Kelly McBride with reporting by Amaris Castillo and research by Kayla Randall
The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.
Sent home to wait
Health policy correspondent Selena Simmons-Duffin recently reported an in-depth story about a woman from D.C. who was experiencing a miscarriage and began bleeding heavily when traveling in Ohio, where a six-week abortion ban passed in 2019. Emergency room nurses and doctors ran tests, but ultimately discharged her without providing the care she needed until, continuing to bleed, she returned to the same ER hours later and was admitted to the hospital’s OB-GYN unit. The piece was a part of Days & Weeks , an NPR series meant to tell “personal stories of lives affected by abortion restrictions in the post-Roe era.” By weaving in local thought leaders for and against the restrictions in Ohio, Simmons-Duffin’s story is a good example of explanatory journalism that explores views on public policy and shows its human impact. — Emily Barske
Using puppets to help children cope
NPR education correspondent Cory Turner recently joined first graders at a Connecticut elementary school for a lesson on recognizing and managing their feelings through puppets. Turner’s reporting explains how pandemic stress has led to disruptive behaviors in children, and how worried researchers created this puppet program to help. The best parts of Turner’s story are the voices of the students. Turner said in the story that he’s been in a lot of classrooms as an education reporter, but “cannot remember seeing kids more joyful.” This story shows how the pandemic has affected children. And it also shows how a group of adults collaborated to address classroom struggles and help kids find joy. — Amaris Castillo
The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.
NPR Public Editor
Chair, Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute