Critics say national media coverage of missing minorities skewed

Published: Oct. 20, 2011 at 9:29 AM EDT|Updated: Nov. 19, 2011 at 10:29 AM EST
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - When Union Academy student Phylicia Barnes disappeared from her half-sister's Baltimore apartment last December, foul play was not initially suspected. Rather, the theory was that the Monroe teen simply left to grab some food and never came back.

When investigators finally determined foul play was a factor, they begged national media outlets to run Barnes story hoping a wider audience becoming familiar with her name and picture would help find the missing teen.

National media outlets were slow to do so. Four months after Barnes vanished, police found her body in river and police labeled the case a murder.

"She didn't leave willingly, she was murdered; and that was valuable time that was wasted in dealing with these issues, no AMBER Alert for her in the early hours of her disappearance, nothing," said Gaetane Borders, President of Peas In Their Pods, a non-profit group that highlights cases of missing black children.

Borders has been critical of national media running more stories of missing white children than children of color. Part of the problem, she believes, happens when missing persons reports are filed.

"The way that the police report is written - not in every case - in many cases, they're listed as runaways and the media doesn't really talk about runaways, she said, "a child snatched from their home, their crib, that's salacious; something that will get on air more than likely."

She points to the case of baby Lisa Irwin, the Kansas City infant who vanished from her crib. It's a story that's been part of the daily network news cycle in recent weeks.

Then Borders looks at the case of William Mcquain -- an 11 year old bi-racial boy who'd been the subject of an AMBER Alert for a week.
His story only made network news Tuesday, when investigators found the boy's body.

"It's frustrating, on the one hand its fabulous that some people get a lot of media coverage, but the flip of that is because there is such an uneven balance in the way that it is demonstrated on TV, that there are kids you never hear of."

That's why Borders works to build strong relationships between parents and police as well as the media. Shining light on the issue, she hopes, will not only lead to a shift in the balance of coverage, but ultimately help find missing kids of all races.

"At the end of the day, whether a child is brown or Caucasian, their parents hurt the same when they go missing."

There are no suspects in Barnes' murder.

The only suspect in the William McQuain case is the boy's stepfather, Curtis Lopez, 45, whom police arrested in Charlotte last week.

In the search for 11-month-old Lisa Irwin, police said the little girl's mother has changed her account of the timeline leading up to the disappearance. Also neither parent is cooperating with police, they said.

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