Anybody who regularly follows true-crime knows all the major cases, from the Zodiac Killer to the JonBenet Ramsey case. To this day, iconic cases like these provide hours of mystery and are so terrifying they make us question the dangers lurking on our very own doorsteps. Though any publicity for unsolved cases brings us one step closer to justice for the victim, certain cases seem to rise above others in terms of coverage. There’s no reason JonBenet’s tragic story has followed us into 2019, other than the fact that people still want to talk about it. If you are a follower of any podcast, Youtube channel or other medium that covers true-crime, it’s inevitable that you will familiarize yourself with these landmark cases.
Though these cases are all chock-full of scandalous and idiosyncratic details, we see one common thread between a large majority of cases being covered: the victim. Even as the demand for true-crime content ramps up, we see that the majority of victims given attention are young, white women. While many avid true-crime fans can tell you the final movements of Maura Murray or recall the name of the fictional nanny made up by Casey Anthony, they’d have trouble naming a case involving a victim of color.
This phenomenon is so common, Gwen Ifill (a now deceased PBS anchor) dubbed it “Missing White Woman Syndrome”, going on to state “if there’s a white woman missing, we’re going to cover that every day.” This term was coined at a 2004 Journalists of Color Convention, but the sentiment rings true today, over fifteen years later. Even in an era of podcasts and youtube with weekly episodes, it’s scarce to find a story deviating from this pattern. Although, as of 2017, Robert Lowry (who works for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) reports, “nationally, about 35 percent of missing children are black, and roughly 20 percent are Latino”, these cases simply fail to raise the alarm in the same way that white, female victims do in the media.
Ashley Flowers–the host of a podcast called “Crime Junkie” (one of my personal favorites)–spoke about this issue in an episode about Amber Tuccaro and Henry McCabe (two victims of color). Flowers prefaced the episode by saying, “I want to tell other stories but we’re limited to what public information we have to go off of…If the world didn’t care enough to report on it, I don’t have enough to tell you a half hour story about it.” Though both McCabe and Tuccaro’s cases contain disturbing and perplexing audio, the public wasn’t drawn to them in the same way they are to other cases. Most episodes of “Crime Junkie” follow a single story and span anywhere from half an hour to a full hour. This episode, however, was 30 minutes in length and contained both Tuccaro and McCabe’s cases. Due to the sheer lack of reporting on these so obviously unusual cases, there simply wasn’t enough to put together a whole story.
Due to this huge gap in information surrounding marginalized victims, so much is left up to the imagination of the reader. In 2017, social media took hold of a story about more than a dozen girls of color going missing in the DC area in the span of a week. With little more than a flyer featuring the girls’ faces and basic descriptions, the internet was under the impression that some sort of sinister conspiracy was at work. Though this certainly is a sad story (and an overwhelming number of victims in a short time), the DC police explained that this was not a major increase in missing children, but, in fact, a slight decrease. They went on to explain that while there is a high rate of disappearances, the number of missing girls had been exaggerated. Police attributed the public panic to an increase in publicity, as they had been posting missing persons cases on social media to heighten awareness.
Despite the fact that the true story is less sensational than 14 children mysteriously vanishing at the hands of some sinister character, it does reveal something more troubling. While the police’s response that there was actually a decrease in missing people soothed some, others realize this meant that people (especially victims of color) had been quietly vanishing at astonishing rates for years with little to no public knowledge or outrage.
Though this story about missing girls was handled poorly by social media, even this heightened, largely sensational press forced the hands of those in power. Several black legislators in the DC area asked the Department of Justice for a formal investigation into the high amounts of kids of color going missing. For one second in time, the justice system was held accountable for these girls’ disappearances. Hopefully, this case will serve as a wake-up call for both the justice system and the media. Though social media puts the power to spread important stories in the hands of the people, it is essential that there are reputable sources on the life or death cases of missing people. This gap of information about victims of color was filled with a story that wasn’t completely true. In cases that are immediately reported by mainstream news, this chance of misinformation is far less likely.
We eat up true-crime cases. We can listen to hours of podcasts and read thousands of pages on mysterious disappearances and violent murders. But we must remember that true-crime is still centered around real people. Though they sound like far away names and places, the people covered (and not covered) have lives and families who miss them. We must also remember that media coverage is more than just a story, and we (as consumers) have the power to influence which cases get coverage. By uplifting movements that advocate for marginalized groups–like the movement surrounding missing and murdered Indigenous women–we add these forgotten stories to the forefront. For those missing, there is a chance of being found, and for those murdered there is still a chance for justice. It is our job to seek closure for these victims. To advocate for little known but just as life threatening cases. If we can carve out time to obsess over these cases, it’s important that we make the time to spread the names and stories of underrepresented victims as well.