gAbby Petito’s disappearance at the end of last summer grabbed national media headlines and started a well-oiled and coordinated manhunt, with advice pouring in on social media, which nonetheless ended by a tragedy. After the discovery of his remains, Petito’s parents thanked law enforcement and the public for their help at a press conference. Joseph Petito also made a pointed statement. “This same type of heightened awareness should be pursued for everyone,” he told the assembled media. “It’s up to all of you, everyone in this room, to do it. If you don’t do it for the other missing people, that’s a shame, because it’s not just Gabby who deserves this.
“This is from a grieving father,” Soledad O’Brien tells The Guardian. The former CNN presenter and executive producer of HBO’s four-part documentary series Black and Missing vividly remembers the press conference over the phone. “Imagine if your own little girl goes missing and you have to scold the media for looking for people of color as well.”
Joseph Petito didn’t mention race, but we’ve all heard the implications in his statement. The disappearance of her daughter has become a classic example of “missing white woman syndrome” – the coercion among law enforcement, media and the public to join in efforts to rescue young white women. Meanwhile, missing and murdered Indigenous and Black women and children are historically, continually and systematically ignored by all of the above. An entire episode of Black and Missing is devoted to the “missing white woman syndrome” and media bias, which draws the attention of forensic scientists to the systemic problems that lead to the disappearance of people of color and subsequently prevent the disappearance of people of color. find them.
The docuseries – created by O’Brien and Geeta Gandbhir, and directed by Gandbhir, Samantha Knowles, Yoruba Richen and Nadia Hallgren – are in-depth, insightful, devastating and galvanizing. The filmmakers surround themselves with Derrica Wilson and Natalie Wilson, co-founders of the Black and Missing Foundation. The grassroots organization helps families and rallies communities in search of their missing loved ones. We see them handing out brochures, booking media appearances, and sticking to police departments who are quick to dismiss the concerns of BIPOC families. The Wilsons, who are sisters-in-law, are uniquely equipped to deal with such issues, which they engage in after their daily work. Nathalie works in public relations. Derrica is once law enforcement. They know how media pressure pushes the police to act faster, if at all.
In the very first episode, a mother explains that her missing daughter was mistakenly labeled a runaway, relieving the police of the responsibility of searching for her during the crucial first days when they have the best chance of finding her. The series is quick to point out that this is not an isolated incident.
And while the Wilson’s help different families navigate gruesome storylines involving missing children or seek resolution after suffering a heartbreaking loss, the filmmakers step back to capture the bigger picture. They link intimate stories of domestic violence, kidnapping and trafficking with the macro issues they illuminate: the criminalization of black children, the systems that allow cycles of poverty and trauma to re-victimize BIPOC families, and the contribution of the media to these problems.
“Systemic racism is not independent of what goes on in this story,” says O’Brien, who explains how well she knows the role of the media in these issues. O’Brien goes back to his time anchoring CNN’s morning show Starting Point when South African athlete Oscar Pistorius was charged with the murder of his wife, model Reeva Steenkamp. O’Brien was taken aback by the extensive coverage, which prioritized a tragedy in South Africa over local news. It occurred to him that the cover was an opportunity to wallpaper Steenkamp’s image all over the screen. “We [were] covering this story because there are some very ‘attractive’ people involved, ”says O’Brien. “There are some people the media thinks are a good story. And then there are others who are not.
O’Brien says she knew the problem had been around for years. But I didn’t realize there were grassroots organizations that opposed biased media coverage of missing people until 2017, when the Black and Missing Foundation was honored on Black Girls Rock !, a show. award ceremony broadcast on BET. A year later, O’Brien and Gandbhir began working on the docuseries, recruiting a largely female BIPOC team, including co-directors like Knowles, Richen, and Hallgren, who would be sensitive to the culture and the challenges facing them. families they represented.
“We really tried to humanize the victims of our series,” Knowles told The Guardian, during a phone call alongside Gandbhir. They describe the care taken in building trust with families, describing them with particular attention. This representation is crucial in such cases. There are reasons the Wilson’s are so meticulous about how they position families when presenting them on local or national news and shows like The View.
“Families would provide photos of their missing loved ones and the police would choose to use a photo ID,” says Knowles, describing common practices that insistently criminalize BIPOC people and set off a chain reaction in the way they are are seen. “It really affects the way the media views this missing person. If the media ends up covering them, it affects how the audience views that person. And that ultimately affects the outcome of the case.
Throughout Black and Missing, the Wilson’s advocate sustained media coverage putting pressure on law enforcement agencies that typically do not prioritize missing persons cases. “Missing persons units are notoriously underfunded,” says Gandbhir, adding that detectives are often slow to respond because unless there is evidence of violence or kidnapping, there is no crime to act on. As Natalie explains at the start of the first episode, most police departments are ranked based on the murders and thefts they solve. They are structurally set up to capture criminals who can be tried and sent to jail instead of helping or saving potential victims and serving the community. It is a model that favors punishment over prevention.
“And then the prison industrial complex is there”, adds Gandbhir, specifying the economy of the judicial system. “She is a cash cow for many, many people, which is not a good model for justice.”
The docuseries evoke the conversation about police funding that has grown louder since the murder of George Floyd. The dedicated and caring community work of the Black and Missing Foundation stands in stark contrast to examples of police neglect, bias, violence and ineffectiveness. Repeatedly, the series features instances where victims, witnesses, or community members would rather report to the Wilsons than to the police; the Black and Missing model offering a useful alternative. An argument can be made to divert funding from one type of organization to another, as a result.
“It’s a little harder to disentangle,” says O’Brien, explaining that I may be simplifying a complex problem. After all, systemic issues rooted in history that last for four hour episodes can’t be solved with a wire transfer. Filmmakers agree that organizations like the Black and Missing Foundation can do a lot more with the right funding. But they also point out that the Wilsons, although frustrated on several occasions by law enforcement, depend on police resources to locate missing persons and seek a solution for some families.
“There is such a long history of neglect between the police and people of color, especially black people,” Knowles explains. “[Natalie and Derricka Wilson] model what that looks like to bridge the gap, to be that kind of alternative to direct interaction with the police. But at the same time, they know they need all the tools at their disposal [including police] and they’re very honest about it.
“They want to hold the police to account. “