On May 3, 2002, Alexis Patterson, 7, went to school in Milwaukee. At day's end, she didn’t come home. A month later, Elizabeth Smart, 14, went to sleep in her bedroom in Salt Lake City. By the next morning, she was gone. Within hours, Elizabeth’s disappearance was featured on CNN’s “Larry King Live” and Fox News’ “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren.” It took eight days for Alexis’ story to attract attention outside Milwaukee, with a segment on “America’s Most Wanted,” reports USA Today. The law enforcement response also differed. The day after Elizabeth disappeared, police called in the FBI and offered a $250,000 reward. In Milwaukee, the FBI didn’t join Alexis’ case fpr three days. Nineteen days after she was last seen, the sheriff offered a $10,000 reward. Elizabeth is white. She was found nine months later. Alexis is Black – and still missing.
Twenty years ago, as police searched for the two girls, some experts argued that race was a key factor in how authorities and reporters handled their cases. It marked the first time the national media paid serious attention to such disparities. Black journalist Gwen Ifill called it the “missing white woman syndrome.” More recently, the case of Gabby Petito, who disappeared on a road trip with her fiance and was later found dead, again brought the issue to the forefront of the public consciousness. Critics fault the lack of racial diversity in newsrooms and media ownership. Others note that because missing Black children often come from high-crime, low-income neighborhoods, their families have less influence with law enforcement and fewer financial resources to devote to publicity campaigns. Syracuse University Prof. Carol Liebler found that law enforcement officers are the most prominent sources in 87 percent of news stories about missing children. “Police contribute to the problem by setting the news agenda through what cases they share with media,” she said. USA Today Network reporters will compile data and public records that expose why these disparities in police response and news coverage of missing children occur and how they can be addressed.