Unpacking the lack of media coverage for missing Black Women
When Sarah Everard disappeared last month, the news had extensive media coverage, extending to the realm of social media in a number of hours and being featured on all national news channels. This contrasts the thousands of black women that go missing every year in the United Kingdom. While it is important not to diminish the light of any individual on cases such as these, the disparities that exist between who is reported and who is neglected are too often rooted in structural racism and other inequalities.
According to The Independent, between 2019 and 2020, Black people accounted for 36 per cent of missing people in London, nearly three times their population in the city. Take for example the case of nursing student Joy Morgan, who went missing after attending her church in December 2018. Her disappearance was not considered newsworthy in those crucial first few hours and her body wasn’t found until 9 months after her disappearance. Black women accounted for 12.9% of missing persons cases in 2018/2019 and 10.2% in 2019/2020, according to the UK Missing Persons Bureau. Although the number of black women disappearing appears to be subsiding, there is still concern about the way in which society chooses to look down upon and misprize the lives of these missing black women, because rarely ever do their cases make the national news.
A young black woman, Blessing Olusegun, disappeared and was later found dead in East Sussex. To date, Blessing’s mother, Esther Abe, is still demanding answers regarding how her daughter died. Blessing disappeared following a phone call with her boyfriend while on a walk. The following day, family and friends tried to get in touch with her as she had stopped responding to their text messages. Her disappearance garnered little publicity, and only when her friends started an online petition to push the Sussex Police to continue actively investigating the case, did more information come about. This was over 5 months later, when Sussex Police stated they had retrieved the 21-year-old business student’s slippers and mobile phone 300m away from where her body was found.
The issue of a lack of publicity towards missing black women is a problem that stretches beyond the UK. Miriam Appetito, an Italian Fashion Journalism student I spoke to, says she came to know about Blessing Olusegun’s death via Twitter and explains that “what happened to both Blessing and Sarah is a clear example of how inter-sectionalism works.” In Italy there is less interest in reporting missing black women than there is in the UK. “When it comes to media coverage of missing women, black women are hardly mentioned. I have personally never heard of a missing black woman in Italy in the news.”
Despite social media being a powerful tool in the distribution of knowledge and information regarding missing person cases, there are still issues regarding how people engage with this information when it concerns people of colour. In 2020, a research completed by The Missing Black Lives reported that, when looking at engagement with Twitter based missing appeals from one UK Police force, pictures of white women in missing-person appeals result in more retweets than those featuring ethnic minority missing people.
When black women go missing on a daily basis with only a small portion of media coverage or at times none, and then accompanied by a mediocre police investigation, it raises the question of how much the lives of these women are actually valued. How many more cases like these will be swept under the rug without a proper investigation? The answer to this question is clear and heart-breaking. With the lack of media interest, it is difficult not to be dishoarded at the misogynoir and other mechanisms of discrimination towards women of colour that underpin these cases.
The deeply rooted mechanisms of racism mean that it is difficult for the world to view black people, and black women in particular, as human beings who have family and friends who love them and want them to return home safe and sound. Society has become so stony-hearted towards the pain and loss of black women that failing them has become a habit, a habit which the media chooses to be part of and perpetuate constantly. It is up to corporations, media networks, and those who hold power to create space within these rooms for a board that reflects the outside world - one that is multi-ethnic, bodied and gendered, so that all types of people may be heard and reflected. Only then with that change, may we see a difference in who and what is deemed as valuable enough for reporting, and potentially saving.
Written by Maureen D'Almeida