By Jeff Dunsavage
Director, The Missing Americans Project
In the early 2000s, amid several highly publicized disappearances of women in the United States (including Laci Peterson, whose husband eventually was convicted for her murder), I read a satirical press release announcing the creation of a TV channel called WTWWA: The “Where The White Women At?” network. It poked scathing fun at the media for their extensive — one might say “excessive” — coverage of missing-persons cases, as long as the person happened to be female, attractive, and white.
This was long before social media “democratized content” and before I became an advocate for families whose loved ones disappear or are murdered while traveling abroad. I’ve been thinking about it a lot while working with Jonathan Reinhard, a Seattle resident whose wife, Jenny Chen, a Chinese citizen, disappeared almost three months ago while traveling through Mexico.
Reinhard has struggled to get official aid in the search for Jenny. Anyone who has had a spouse, child, or sibling go missing abroad can tell you that the media are the tail that wags the government dog. Local authorities lack interest and resources to do much for a foreign family. The U.S. State Department — despite its boilerplate pronouncements that “the safety of our citizens is our highest priority” — simply and sincerely wishes we would disappear as suddenly and completely as our family members.
If you can’t get mainstream-media play or go viral in social media, you are on your own.
But wait, you say. Americans who disappear outside their borders get loads of media attention! Look at Natalee Holloway and … um … that other pretty blonde who disappeared in Aruba.
Yeah, that one. See?
Natalee and Robyn occupy the sad pinnacle of what I have come to call the “media hierarchy of empathy.” They are beautiful, vulnerable faces in trouble that deliver eyeballs to detergent ads, that the most desirable demographic can look at and say, “This could be my daughter, my sister. I should keep watching.”
And when the inevitable, unconfirmed salacious tidbits arise, “I should keep watching” morphs into “I can’t stop watching.”
Ratings rise and soap is sold.
Jenny is an attractive young woman. Check.
But not American.
Traveling alone in an area of the world known to be dangerous (“What was she thinking? Was she up to something? Maybe she and Jonathan….”)
Too many holes in the narrative, too many questions to ensure the empathy that makes toilet paper and home pregnancy tests fly off supermarket shelves.
Jenny is not a “worthy victim” in the eyes of the media and, therefore, does not warrant the sort of attention that might, just might, light a fire under officials.
So what is this hierarchy? It runs roughly as follows:
- Attractive, young, white female. Children and teens from nice American families are at the top (August Reiger for example). If they are spring breakers or traveling with a school or church group, media coverage and government involvement are virtually ensured.
- Moms, especially young Moms (Google “Sarai Sierra”).
- Attractive adventurers (Harry Devert and Aubrey Sacco).
Below, these three classes fall the less- to unworthy victims:
- Non-U.S. citizens, even if attractive. Such media attention as they garner typically emphasizes questionable judgment or behavior or relationship issues that might explain away their victimhood.
- Males above the age of 30, or under 30 and not conforming to the “attractive adventurer” classification — generally presumed irresponsible or up to no good.
- People of color.
This ranking is hardly scientific — oh, I forgot to mention: No official entity tracks or curates missing-/murdered-abroad cases, so organizations like mine are left to scratch through sparse media coverage and social media noise to gather such information as we do obtain.
Why does this matter? Because, as I indicated above, the amount and quality of media attention a victim garners affects whether their family receives officials’ attention and gets a shot at finding answers or justice. “Worthy” victims’ families have a chance. “Less worthy” victims’ families get nibbled to death by social-media piranhas, alone.
Jeff Dunsavage started The Missing Americans Project to support and advocate for families who lose loved ones outside their national borders after his brother disappeared on the island of Roatan, Honduras, in 2009. He has appeared on the BBC’s Fast Track, ABC’s Nightline, and in other broadcast, print, and social media.