The news spread quickly on social media this week: 14 black teenage girls had gone missing in Washington, DC over a 24-hour period. The hashtag #missingdcgirls began trending, and celebrities added their voices to the outrage at the mysterious and horrifying phenomenon.
But amid the anger and recriminations about the lack of mainstream media attention to what looked to many like a coordinated kidnapping, an important fact was lost: The 14 girls reported missing by local police did not disappear over one 24-hour period, and police have offered no reason to think their cases are linked.
The widespread misunderstanding, which seems to have been triggered by a viral flyer (created by the gossip website Entertainment for Breakfast), was debunked by police in an interview with NBC Washington: “Since March 19, D.C. police have shared 20 missing person fliers on Twitter,” the news outlet reported after speaking with police representatives. “10 of these people were juveniles. As of Friday, six of these juveniles had been found; four still were missing.”
The confusion apparently stemmed from a change to the police department’s social media strategy, in which it began posting its missing flyers more frequently. Officials told the Associated Press that there has been no increase in the the city’s missing person numbers. “We’ve just been posting them on social media more often,” Metropolitan Police spokeswoman Rachel Reid told the AP. The department’s records show that the number of missing juveniles has remained steady for the past few years, and there were 22 unsolved cases of missing children as of March 22.
Still, the social media outrage is not entirely misplaced. The larger underlying point, that a disproportionate number of black people go missing in the US, is verifiably true. There were 218,818 missing black people in the US in 2016, according to the National Crime Information Center, making up a third—33.8%—of the country’s missing people. African Americans make up just 13.3% of the US population.
Last week’s confusion notwithstanding, many have pointed out that the disappearances of black and Latino people are generally given short shrift by US media outlets. The “missing white woman syndrome,” as first described by the late PBS reporter Gwen Ifill, refers to the wall-to-wall media attention to the disappearances of white, attractive women and girls from wealthier backgrounds.
As for black women and men who go missing, they generally don’t make it to the evening news, pointed out Yesha Callahan in the Root. “Do you see those faces?” she asked. “Have you seen those faces on the news? How many times did you see Natalee Holloway’s visage on the news when she went missing? Do you recall how long her search went on?”
The attention to DC’s missing persons rolls this week has led to some action on the situation. On Tuesday, the Congressional Black Caucus sent a letter calling upon the Justice Department to devote resources to investigating whether the missing teenagers were an anomaly or part of a larger trend. And on Wednesday, hundreds of people packed into a town-hall meeting in DC to discuss the city’s missing children cases.
On Friday, Washington DC’s mayor, Muriel E. Bowser, announced that the city will increase the number of police officers assigned to finding missing children, and allocate more money to nonprofits working with vulnerable teens.