Missing Black Women vs. 'Runaway Brides'

Commentator Deborah Mathis points to the case of Tamika Huston, a missing black woman from South Carolina, to ask: When women of color are reported missing, why don't they attract the same level of media attention as white women? Mathis is a syndicated columnist and a professor at the Medill School of Journalism.

ED GORDON, host:

Last week the disappearance of the so-called runaway bride set off a massive manhunt and extensive media coverage. Commentator Deborah Mathis asks why, when women of color are reported missing, they don't attract the same level of media attention?

DEBORAH MATHIS:

A slow news day can be a dangerous thing, especially in the era of the multichannel round-the-clock news cycle. Dangerous because the temptation is to make mountains out of molehills, as in the case of the cable news stations going buck wild over the story of a missing woman in Georgia. In case you missed it, and lucky you if you did, the story began when Jennifer Wilbanks went for a jog and never came back. That was last Tuesday. She was due to be married last Saturday.

For days it looked like yet another tragedy in the making, yet another young woman of unknown whereabouts, possibly rotting at the bottom of some lake or in some shallow grave or with body parts scattered in the woods. But on her wedding day, Wilbanks emerged, shorn and disheveled, in New Mexico, claiming she'd been kidnapped by a couple in a blue van before coming clean and confessing that she'd actually hopped a Greyhound to Las Vegas and then another to Albuquerque. Turns out, she had cold feet about getting married.

And so the search was called off, the family was relieved, the fiance forgave, the fancy wedding was put on hold, the police and FBI announced Jennifer would not be criminally charged and some of the townspeople grumped about having been duped. End of story? It should have been. But for days and days the cable shows kept the runaway bride story at the top of the charts. Friends and neighbors, Wilbanks' pastor, former FBI agents, psychologists and lawyers marched across the television screens to analyze the whys and hows of Wilbanks' deception, as if viewers couldn't figure them out on their own. Evidently, producers have seen research that shows missing young women stories are magnetic. Cases in point: Laci Peterson in California; Lori Hacking in Utah; and, once upon a time, Chandra Levy in Washington, DC. Each caught television's unblinking eye and, by dint of that, finding the women became national missions.

Tamika Huston has yet to get that kind of attention, even on a slow news day. Tamika was 24 when she disappeared nearly a year ago from her home in South Carolina. Local media have been attentive, but the story of Tamika Huston never got a national wind under its sails. Not that Tamika doesn't fit the profile; she does--young, sparkling, beloved, beautiful and gone without a trace. It is, in some folks' views, hypersensitivity, perhaps even paranoia, that leads one to wonder if the oversight might have anything to do with race. Tamika is black. After all, not all missing white women are featured on national newscasts, but no missing black women get that kind of attention. Why not? Could it be that a black woman's life is just not thought to be as valuable as that of her white peers? Is black tragedy not as tragic? Is black trouble not as troubling? Is black sorrow not as sorrowful?

It doesn't take a conspiracy to put a Tamika Huston on the back burner. It's not necessarily that TV producers or hosts meet and decide not to cover the mystery of Tamika's fate. It's that it never occurs to them to cover it. If a panic-stricken bride-to-be deserves national attention, can the tale of a missing innocent deserve any less, at least on a slow news day?

GORDON: Deborah Mathis is a syndicated columnist and a professor at the Medill School of Journalism.

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