Media Coverage of Sandra Cantu Part of Bigger Pattern

by Harrison Chastang on April 14, 2009

The mainstream news media coverage of Sandra Cantu’s disappearance and ultimate murder follows the predictable pattern of selective, sensational coverage driven by race and demographics. The disappearance of Cantu, an eight year old girl from the Central Valley town of Tracy, should have been a local story of interest to the hometown paper, the Tracy Press, and to nearby TV stations in Stockton and Sacramento, not to San Francisco, Oakland or San Jose newsrooms 70 miles away. When word broke that a cute, light skinned girl was missing in the suburbs, the media stampede was on to Tracy, a town most San Francisco and San Jose reporters probably may have never heard of unless they knew somebody who lived there or covered a strike story at the Safeway distribution center located in Tracy.

The coverage of Cantu’s disappearance and murder was intense, generating front page coverage in most Bay Area newspapers and extensive “wall to wall” time on Bay Area TV and radio newscasts. In these times of scarce newsroom resources, newspapers had multiple reporters working on the story and some stations had two or three news crews stationed in Tracy for live reports. Several stations devoted up to half their nightly newscast to the “Breaking News of the disappearance of little Sandra Cantu” with the all important weather, traffic and sports rounding up the rest of the newscast at the expense of other important stories.

Why did the Cantu story generate such a media frenzy? Her coverage fits a pattern of how the media covers missing persons. Polly Klaas of Petaluma, Ilene Misheloff of Dublin, Xiana Fairchild of Vallejo, Amber Swartz-Garcia of Pinole are all well known names in the Bay Area because of high profile media coverage of their disappearances. What’s common about all these cases is that they were cute, White and lived in the outer suburbs of the Bay Area, a key target demographic for Bay Area newspapers, radio and TV stations. African American, Asian and dark skinned Hispanic children who go missing, particularly Black kids who live in urban inner city communities such as Oakland, San Francisco or Richmond rarely receive the type of media attention that Cantu or the aforementioned White children received, even though FBI statistics indicate that Black children make up about one third of all missing children.

Activists say that this pattern is not just a Bay Area phenomenon. According to the website Black and Missing But Not Forgotten, the mainstream media throughout the country rarely reports about the disappearance of Black children on the same level that cute White children receive.

Community activist and syndicated columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson says that the mainstream media has shown little interest in providing extensive coverage of missing Black children. Hutchinson says that media bosses have acknowledged the disparity in coverage and always promise to do better but the reality is that most daily papers, TV and radio newsrooms ignore missing Black children reports. Hutchinson said that occasionally an African American reporter or assignment editor may pressure a station or newspaper to do a story on a missing Black child, but recent media cutbacks have forced out the few Black newsroom reporters and decision makers. Editors and broadcast news directors defend their coverage, saying they are just responding to community reaction of missing children reports. Hutchinson disagrees with that contention. Hutchinson says that he’s personally been involved in media campaigns organized by parents, friends and relatives of missing African American children. Hutchinson says at best stations may give token coverage to a missing person report of an African American child, but nothing to the extent of the nationwide coverage given to the disappearance and murder of White girls like JonBenét Ramsey in Denver and Callee Anthony in Orlando, or local White girls like Cantu.

Hutchinson says he does not expect any improvement in the way that the mainstream media reports on the disappearance of Black children. Black child advocates have founded websites such as Black and Missing But Not Forgotten as a way to bypass the mainstream media’s refusal to provide coverage of missing Black children. Hutchinson said that one way to pressure TV and Radio stations into providing better coverage of missing Black children is to challenge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) licenses of stations that do a poor job of reporting the disappearance of missing Black children. Hutchinson says that stations have a responsibility to serve the community and that stations fail in that regard when they don’t cover reports of missing Black children in the same manner stations report on missing White children. Hutchinson says an Obama appointed FCC board could have as many as three African American commissioners who may be more interested in investigating complaints of racial bias in TV and radio news coverage than Republicans who have controlled the FCC the past eight years.

Local activists say that San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose based newspapers, radio and TV stations don’t have to travel 70 miles to report on missing children, because, sadly, there are Black, Hispanic and Asian children who disappear within blocks from the newsrooms of the Bay Area newspapers, radio and TV stations.

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