The question of whether race plays a role in how the media covers a missing person case comes up often, and it's worth discussing. In a Facebook post @Lyngay wonders why I'm "shocked" at the lack of media interest surrounding Janteyl Johnson's disappearance. I'm not shocked. I'm troubled by it and have been writing about this problem for several years. I will never understand why Janteyl's case was overlooked. What I do believe is that her story is an opportunity to further advance the conversation about how we, the media, can do a better job covering stories of missing minority children and adults and making sure they aren't ignored.
My job is to ask questions such as: how does a 15-year-old pregnant child mysteriously vanish, and seven years later, we know very little about her disappearance? What about the older guys she was talking to that day? What about the baby's father? Has he ever helped to look for her? Isn't he concerned about his child? Did the fact that Janteyl was immediately labeled a runaway and was said to have possibly left on her own with an older man lead to unfair assumptions about her? Of course, it did! But here's the deal, even if she did leave on her own, she was a pregnant child traveling with some older guy. That should've been enough for the media to cover this case the way Lacy Peterson, Elizabeth Smart, and Natalie Holloway were covered. Why was Janteyl ignored? If she had been from a different neighborhood or the suburbs would she have been ignored? You decide.
Many families of missing people of color will be the first ones to tell you how they've experienced the lack of media interest in their loved ones stories. I believe that's what @Lyngay is trying to point out in her post. The lack of media coverage of missing minority children and adults is a problem that's long been addressed by experts at organizations like The Black and Missing Foundation and in articles like this one by The Denver Post.
An example of the disparity in media coverage was evident in 2002 when California mom-to-be Laci Peterson vanished. Laci's disappearance was top news locally and nationally for months, and rightfully so. Sadly, her body and that of her baby were later found in the San Francisco Bay. Her husband Scott Peterson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 2004.
But what about Evelyn Hernandez? Have you heard of her? Five months before Laci Peterson vanished the Salvadoran immigrant, who was also pregnant, disappeared along with her five-year-old son. Like Laci, Evelyn's remains were also found in the San Francisco Bay, but Evelyn's story was ignored by the media for months. That's not all. Evelyn's five-year-old son has never been found. According to published reports, Herman Aguilera, the father of her unborn child, who was married to someone else at the time, has long been suspected in their disappearance, but police have made no arrests. Their case remains unsolved.
Cases like those of Evelyn Hernandez and Janteyl Johnson are reminders that a person's race and social status shouldn't determine if they are worthy of media coverage. It's well known that coordinated efforts between law enforcement and the media are crucial in all missing person cases, especially during those first critical hours. When a 15-year-old pregnant teen can simply fall off the face of the earth, without answers and without the public knowing, should concern every single one of us. Janteyl Johnson's case should have all of us asking ourselves: What if this happened to my daughter?