Jessie Smith and her trail of reporters

By Guest Columnist Jun 25, 2007

Elizabeth Smart. Lacie Peterson. Natalee Holloway. Kelsey Smith. Given the constant media coverage of these women, you don’t have to monitor tnews to correctly identify them as those reported missing by their loved ones. But what else do these women have in common? They are young, white and attractive. This month’s round-the-clock news coverage of Jessie Smith, a 26-year-old pregnant mother who shares the same qualities, brings to mind the disproportionate attention the media seems to dedicate to missing young white women who happen to be good-looking. There are colored people – some attractive, others maybe less photogenic – whose whereabouts are unknown, but why is it that their equally compelling stories are given minimal airtime at best? My guess is this disparity in news coverage is due to the lack of people of color in newsrooms. According to a 2005 survey conducted by Radio-Television News Directors Association, non-whites and Hispanics make up less than a quarter of the television news workforce. However, the U.S. Census reported that same year that slightly more than 33 percent of the nation’s population consists of people of color. Most of tnews we consume is delivered to us by white journalists. But why are whites less likely to cover missing cases in communities of color? I’m afraid that answer lies not in tnewsroom but in the consciousness of America that is slow to view people of color as victims or perceive racial bias. Ms. Smart is lucky. She is alive today and can actually peruse through news coverage on her disappearance that was in-part responsible for her safe recovery. However, race and age discrimination, coupled with the agenda-setting nature of news, has unfairly deprived many unaccounted individuals some potentially-life saving attention. Last December, many Americans polled by Opinion Research Corp. said they don’t even recognize this racial bias or at least thought that racial bias in the United States "is not serious at all." Perhaps they weren’t watching enough TV. –Sheeba Raj, raised in the Bronx, New York, earned her master’s in sociology from St. John’s University and will begin studying environmental law at Pace Law School in New York this fall. A researcher and journalist, Sheeba has also worked in the business section of the Baltimore Sun newspaper.