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:

a. White
b. Female
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)?


Anonymous said...

Some answers:

1. No. Annie Le's murder is getting alot of coverage because she is a semi-attractive non-Black woman of color whose murder reads like something out of a CSI episode (Expect the writers there or Dick Wolf's L&O to rip it for an episode or 3). Richardson's murder gets scant coverage because of hangover from the "Obama phenomenon," but the coverage is minimal.

2a. Neither. They only noted this fact in an attempt to blunt possible criticism and protest from the Sharpton/J. Jackson-types who might take to the street and/or the blogs and broadcast this fact far and wide.

2b. No. Unless sex is directly involved with Black women in some form - and the sex must be insinuated as consensual, btw - the news will only peek into it, before moving on to someone else.

3. Le's class dimension is actually tied more to race. Since Le is Asian, her education only serves to further the "smart, hardworking Asian" stereotype that is being promoted on the side.

Since Raymond Clark has already been casted as "weird," "controlling," and "crazy," White Privilege has already disowned him and made him "not one of us." This helps the news media to hype the story from an off-hand episode promotional angle.

In other words, the media is going to hype it as a made-for-TV "whodunit," even if the local PD's findings are shaky enough that a competent defense attorney should be able to completely deflate the case - assuming, of course, that politics can stay out of the case completely.

gordon gartrelle said...

Great answers, heavyarmor.

Le got coverage because she was an attractive young woman, a Yale grad student, and her status as an innocent victim was unquestioned(once the early "runaway bride with cold feet" theories dissipated). I think the "model minority" stuff was an afterthought. It helped only to the extent that stereotypes are a familiar shorthand for lazy people.

Richardson, also an attractive young woman, not only had her blackness going against her, she had going against her the fact that her status as an innocent victim was severely compromised by her illegal behavior, which feeds into negative stereotypical perceptions of her race and class.

Despite the national media's dreadful track record, I think that they might've covered Richardson had she been a "squeaky clean" Stanford Ph.D. candidate.

Anonymous said...

Mitrice Richardson's Myspace


She is openly lesbian. She works as a stripper. She is heavily involved in the LA gay/lesbian bar scene.
Blogs about drugs.

Parents hired Leo Terrel, local lawyer, talk radio host and media expert. Great public relations campaign. Mom says Mitrice is a wonderful innocent girl and knows nothing about real world.

FleaStiff said...

Comments and corrections:
>normally that adult must be:

a. White
b. Female
c. Thin and relatively attractive.
d. Upper class (by virtue of income or education)
If only that were so! Kim, missing somewhere in the California or the Pacific Northwest, was an object of intense media and internet coverage: Korean male, albeit he was indeed relatively thin.

>audience will identify with attractive, upper class white women
Such as the California newspaper that conveniently bypassed the actual first baby of the new year (black, born to middle aged single woman with history of public assistance) in favor of the white baby born to a young, photogenic white married couple. Do you think this is innapropriate for a commercial enterprise to target its audience?

>if you aren’t white, you’d better be squeaky clean
Well, a white girl would have had no trouble approaching an animated wallet with rudimentary conversational skills on a nearby barstool and having her bill paid for her.

>consider Natalee Holloway,
>engaged in excessive drinking
>and sleeping around

>simply token non-white covers?
American media even BEFORE the Declaration of Independence devoted ONE line to each white man killed at the battle of Lexington and Concord whereas each black victim received TWO lines. Token coverage?

>class related social value???
The story is about police incompetence as well as a missing person. Even Rapid Lapd's handling of the case is a bit lacking in common sense.

gordon gartrelle said...


1. You have to look at the numbers. The fact is, there have only been a handful of cases where missing MEN of any background were given national coverage. It's great that Kim got coverage, but even news people admit that there is a strong bias toward covering white women is established fact.

2. Do you think this is innapropriate for a commercial enterprise to target its audience?

Of course not, but this isn't the same thing as wanting to see people of color in sitcoms or commercials. News may be more commercial entertainment than information source, but when media outlets publicize missing persons, resources are diverted toward these cases. This kind of biased missing person coverage has a tangible (negative) effect on the lives of the missing people of color and their families.

3. My point is that, to even have a chance at getting extended national coverage, a missing person of color must be squeaky clean, while a missing white woman (as long as she is attractive and at least middle class) isn't bound by those same standards. I'm not knocking Hollaway at all; I'm just pointing out a double standard.

Pete Morris said...

The media covers missing women based on how much they think their target audience will fantasize about about raping the victim themselves. The "hotter" the victim, the more coverage they give.

FleaStiff said...

>target audience will fantasize about raping the victim...
Nope. If a really "hot" woman is reporting missing, men may fantasize about consentual sex as a reward for finding her but they don't fantasize about rape.

FleaStiff said...

>only a handful of missing MEN
>strong bias toward white women
Agreed, and properly so.

>resources are diverted toward
Only on a temporary basis, the investigation of missing colored persons still continues, just without endless (and probably useless) cable-tv chatter.

>person of color ...squeaky clean
>missing white woman need not be.
A missing white woman can even have been a prostitute and will still receive the favorable and perhaps helpful publicity particularly if she has a black pimp because it will be viewed as her having been misled, forced or brainwashed whereas a missing woman of color with a history of prostitution will often be ignored by the media.
But did Mittrice's family help by hiring a media consultant instead of a detective? Or by making demands for non-existent film footage?

FleaStiff said...

Mittrice will be one of several missing persons featured in the People Magazine article Vanished.
Photo will appear on the cover.

FleaStiff said...

Despite a possibility of her still being alive the case is now officially a homicide investigation based largely on the compilation of journal entries showing lack of sleep for five days prior to the incident.

Anonymous said...

If Mitrice Richardson was seriously "bi-polar", this just goes to show that all of her sycophants and enablers in the LGBT and "Sex-and-skin" are some real cretins. If these people really cared about her and her future, WHO of you was on her "ARSE", telling her that she needed to around more therapeutic and cathartic influences... and NOT make herself available to the bottom-feeding sex industry. Obviously the lesbian GF didn't have the right kind of influence on Mitrice, either. Just keeping it VERY REAL.

Anonymous said...

If any of the sycophants, co-conspirators, aiders and abettors of the sick world (strippers, strip club owners, LGBT club, her "girlfriend", marijuana supplier, etc.) Mitrice matriculated in really CARED about her, they wouldn't have sat idly by and kept their mouths shut. Serious mental disorders, stripping, smoking pot, and the emotional, extreme world of LGBTs is a recipe for this young woman's obvious demise. It doesn't matter that she was "attractive" and had a college degree. You people are shallow... and SICK.