Everyone who has ever tuned into a cable channel has heard the names Natalee Holloway and Laci Peterson. Show hosts like Nancy Grace have used their TV pulpits to chronicle the disappearance of such white, female victims night after night.
But what about black victims like Yasmin Acree or missing sisters Diamond and Tiondra Bradley?
That's one of the questions raised by a new docu-series, "Find Our Missing," hosted by S. Epatha Merkerson and produced by TV One, the African-American-themed cable channel based in Silver Spring.
The disparity in coverage based on race isn't a new phenomenon, of course. As far back as 2006, you can find references to "Missing White Woman Syndrome," a term used to describe the hyper media coverage given to what one analyst described as "pretty, young, white females who go missing."
What is new is that one cable channel is trying to do something about it in a concrete way — Maryland's TV One. And that's big news, given the dubious history of African-American-focused TV channels like BET that have historically emphasized music, sexy videos and awards shows at the expense of a serious commitment to public service or news programming.
"I think it's important, necessary and great that TV One is doing this show," says Nsenga Burton, associate professor of media studies at Goucher College and a pop-culture blogger at TheRoot.com. "Black people in general don't really get covered when they are victims of crime. They just don't. And this is an important attempt by TV One to address the black-missing-persons part of that in a meaningful way."
As Burton sees it, there is a lot of racially charged history for just one series of 10 episodes airing on one cable channel in 56 million homes to overcome. Oprah Winfrey's OWN Channel, for example, debuted in 80 million homes. But analysts say "Find Our Missing" is a promising start.
"These blond, white women who disappear are in the headlines for years," Burton says. "But you can't get these black children on the news for a 30-second sound bite. So, yes, what TV One is doing with 'Find Our Missing' is definitely necessary. It's a community service. It's something that needs to happen."
Merkerson, a Tony-nominated Broadway actress for her work in August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson," says she thinks there are a number of reasons for the way missing black people are treated in the mainstream media as opposed to missing whites.
"It can be any number of reasons for the dearth of information in the national media on blacks who are missing," she said in a telephone interview last week "There's some racism involved. Some apathy with it. But when our kids are missing, it's always considered [by investigators] that they're runaways. And so [the thinking by authorities is that] these kids will come back around. And often there's no sense of urgency at the start."
The actress, best known for her long-running depiction of Lt. Anita Van Buren on NBC's "Law & Order," says the primary goal of the series is public service.
"TV One is being community-focused," she says, not only in creating a show about missing blacks, but in structuring it in such a way "that in the end it will bring in information that will help law enforcement find missing people and bring closure to these families."
Each episode opens with Merkerson introducing a case. The show then moves to the places where the missing persons were last seen. The stories are retold within those nonfiction environments, but using actors and re-enactments to depict the last known activities of the person who has gone missing.
"This is not a made-up environment," Merkerson says."The only things that are not true are the actors. Their performances are true to the story, but they are actors playing the parts."
In its first two weeks, the series has covered cases in Washington, San Francisco and Chicago. Merkerson stresses the fact that "Find Our Missing" is the first national TV effort to find missing blacks.
But Sheri Parks, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, says it is not the first national media effort in finding missing black children. Parks, author of "Fierce Angels: The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture," says blacks have been using the Internet for years to create "virtual communities" around such cases as that of Phylicia Barnes, the 16-year-old North Carolina honor student who came to visit relatives in Baltimore and went missing Dec. 28, 2010. Her body was found last April in the Susquehanna River near the Conowingo Dam.
"Before TV One, there has been a lot of interesting activity on black websites by black folks from all walks of life around this issue, especially with the Phylicia Barnes case," Parks says. "I think that Internet pressure by blacks played an important role in keeping the pressure on the police and the rest of the mainstream media.
The Barnes case did receive prominent coverage in The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer, says Burton, who lived in North Carolina before coming to Goucher.
"Maybe it is because I lived in both Charlotte and Baltimore," Burton says. "But to me, the Phylicia Barnes case was the first time where I really saw the media in both cities actually get behind trying to find this child. And that's just highly, highly unusual, even though there was a multistate search for this girl. This missing child was Page One news in both of those cities."
Parks says one of the things she has noticed about black Internet communities that come together around missing persons is that they often tend to focus on the same kinds of cases as the Nancy Grace-like cable TV shows: young, attractive women.
"Only the race changes," Parks said.
In the end, Parks thinks the show can make a difference for the better, no matter whether TV One is breaking new ground or mostly reacting to an interest in that was first identified online.
"One thing we know is that media attention spurs more activity by law enforcement agencies — that's how the authorities react to the media pressure," Parks says. "And a national show focused on missing blacks should help in keeping up that pressure."