Tuesday, October 6, 2009
More Questions About Race and Media Coverage: Mitrice Richardson’s Disappearance
A few weeks ago, I asked a few short questions about race and the national media coverage of the disappearance (and subsequent death) of Yale Ph.D. student Annie Le.
Around the same time, Mitrice Richardson, another missing woman of color, received a little bit of national coverage. This was surprising, given that missing black women pretty much never become national news stories. Of course, this coverage lasted a week at the most, and was nowhere near as widespread as that of Le.
As I said in talking the Le post, normally, for a missing adult to become a national story, that adult must be:
c. Thin and relatively attractive.
d. Upper class (by virtue of income or education)
Collectively, these characteristics serve as shorthand for “sympathetic victim.” Mainstream media folks apparently believe that the audience will identify with attractive, upper class white women—“ all-American girls” in our country’s newspeak.
While neither Le nor Richardson are/were white, they are/were both attractive young women. I haven’t read enough about Richardson’s family to speak with certainty, but the tenor of the coverage suggests that Richardson comes from a middle class background. For instance, Richardson graduated with a B.A. from Cal State Fullerton—not exactly Yale, but college nonetheless.
Complicating the coverage of Richardson’s disappearance are her documented trangressions the night she went missing. The reportedly intoxicated Richardson was arrested and booked for not paying for her meal at a restaurant and for possession of marijuana.
Because mainstream media tend to depict people in crime-related stories simplistically, either as innocent victims or as criminals, Richardson’s case poses a problem. One can imagine a news editor downplaying Richardson’s “relateability” by assuming that her crimes suggest that she had some shady associations or a less-than-stellar character.
The implication is that, if you aren’t white, you’d better be squeaky clean or else you can’t be an everywoman/all-American girl. This goes back to Rule 1 of judging black screwups: “A black person who screws up is attacked more severely than is a white person who screws up.”
For the sake of comparison, consider Natalee Holloway, the white Alabama girl who went missing in Aruba several years ago and whose case is still getting national coverage. According to even her classmates, she engaged in extremely risky behavior—excessive drinking and sleeping around—but none of that diminished her luster as a victim.
Richardson’s family is acutely aware of the double standard, and has made a concerted effort, it seems, to render their daughter in aspirational middle class tones. They made it a point to emphasize her college degree. They also noted that Richardson worked as an executive assistant, but was considering pursuing a doctoral program in psychology.
Moreover, the Richardson family has tried to minimize her responsibility for her crimes. Richardson’s parents insist that a friend introduced her to marijuana (as if a 24 year old isn’t responsible for her own decision whether to do drugs). They also seem to be suggesting that not only was Mitrice intoxicated, she was mentally unstable.
Some additional questions (playing off the the questions I raised over the Le coverage):
1.) Is there a self-consciousness on the part of media outlets about the racial aspects of their formula to determine which missing women deserve national media coverage? Not that they care about missing women of color (or missing white women, for that matter), but are Richardson or Le simply token non-white covers?
2a.) Did the fact that the police have been held partially responsible for Richardson’s disappearance make her case more or less likely to be covered?
2b.) Had Richardson not broken the law, would the national coverage of her disappearance have more legs?
3.) Is the class dimension in Richardson’s case as prominent as those in Le’s? Remember, Le’s status as an Ivy League grad student were front and center, and were tied to her class-related social value. On the other hand, the class dimensions of Richardson is more complicated, as the media has countered her education and career with her crimes and signifiers (like tattoos) of her relative lack of class-related social value.
What other questions about media coverage have been raised by Richardson’s case (especially as compared to Le’s)?