New documentary highlights plight of missing Black women and why their cases go ignored

A third of the almost 300,000 U.S. girls and women reported missing in 2020 were Black. That's according to the National Crime Information Center. Yet those cases are often marginalized or ignored by law enforcement and national media. Now, a four-part documentary series on HBO follows the lives of two women working to bring awareness to these cases. Amna Nawaz has the story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A third of the almost 300,000 girls and women reported missing in the U.S. in 2020 were Black.

    That is according to the National Crime Information Center. And yet those cases often get little attention or are all but ignored by law enforcement and national news media.

    Now a four-part documentary series on HBO follows the lives of two women working to bring awareness to these cases.

    Amna Nawaz has the story.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The new series tells the story of Natalie and Derrica Wilson, co-founders of the Black and Missing Foundation. The sisters-in-law rally communities and help families as they search for their missing loved ones.

    Here now is a clip featuring Derrica Wilson.

    Derrica Wilson, Co-Founder, Black and Missing Foundation: Being a former law enforcement official, I have dealt firsthand with missing person cases.

    Back in 2002, I ended up getting hired on with the City of Falls Church Police Department as the first African American female police officer in the history of the agency.

    My goal and aspiration initially was to work for the FBI and get into forensics. I spent six months in a police academy, and we dedicated, what, like an hour or two to missing persons cases. I actually had a case where there was a young lady, and I didn't realize she was missing until I was able to recover her.

    We received a call, and I was the primary officer responding to that call, of a domestic violence situation in progress. As I'm driving to the scene, I notice two people walking really fast. And it just looked out of the ordinary.

    I stopped, and this young lady ran to me. It was the young lady that was the domestic violence victim, and her hair was pulled out. She had bite marks all over her body. Had to take her to the hospital to get a rape kit. She had been missing for days.

    She was stuck in a motel in the city of Falls Church with her abductor. She was reported missing in our neighborhood jurisdiction, and her flyer never crossed my desk. And she was a young Black female. I don't want these cases to be handled sloppy because our community matters.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And Soledad O'Brien is the executive producer of "Black and Missing."

    And she joins me now.

    Soledad, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you so much for making the time.

    Tell us a little bit more about these two women, Natalie and Derrica Wilson. Why did you choose to center the story around them and their work?

    Soledad O'Brien, Executive Producer, "Black and Missing": We started this documentary process about three years ago because we found the work they were doing just fascinating.

    We were hearing from Derrica talking about being in law enforcement and trying to use her expertise to help families who have missing loved ones who can't figure out how to break through the barrier of disinterest in a lot of cases, where no one seems to actually really care enough about the person who's missing that they go the extra mile, or maybe just go the basic mile, to make sure that there is a missing persons flyer that is circulated in areas outside of just that one jurisdiction.

    For Natalie, who's had a background in public relations, she was interesting in leveraging in what she does in her day job in P.R. to helping families learn how to navigate the system. How do you make a media that does not seem to very often care about women of color who are missing, and make them care?

    Sometimes, that's about the information you give, the press conference you give. How do you address people on the phone? Who do you reach out to? All of that, she could help.

    But so the two of them get together to use their skills to help communities that are — and the data shows this very clearly — communities that are very often ignored by media, by law enforcement, and sometimes by their own community when they go missing, to help them get a leg up.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This issue of the media not caring, not paying as much attention as it does to other stories, there's a phrase many of us have heard, missing white women syndrome, which the late great Gwen Ifill is believed to have first used.

    And it basically means, in our industry, that the stories of missing white women often get a lot of attention, and the media tends to stay with those stories, in a way that they do not with the stories of missing Black women or indigenous women or Latinas.

    Gwen Ifill said that back in 2004. Why is this still a problem today?

  • Soledad O’Brien:

    Yes, because I don't think anybody has really thought about, well, why do we not care? Is it that people in media are cold and callous and don't care about stories? I don't believe that's true.

    I think there's a lot of bias involved. And missing white woman syndrome, as Gwen called it and penned it originally, I guess, also includes the wall-to-wall coverage that actually gets communities up in arms, to the point where you have people flying themselves to Aruba to help look for Natalee Holloway.

    So it's not even just the media. It's this idea of like, why do people as a whole just not care? In our documentary, we profile a young woman, a beautiful young woman, who's Black who goes missing. And then a couple of weeks later, Natalee Holloway goes missing.

    And her aunt describes what it's like to watch the attention that Natalee Holloway — I remember I covered the Natalee Holloway case. What a horrific story for her mom to go on newscast after newscast to beg for information about her daughter.

    But, at the same time, the aunt who's looking for her niece is saying, why does no one cares about my niece? And she's reaching out to these news organizations. She's a TV producer. She has some wherewithal about how to navigate. She can't get any attention.

    And so I think it's about, why do we care about some people and why do we not care about others? I personally believe it's a lot of bias. I know, when I have done documentaries that focus on people of color, "Black in America," "Latino in America," I have been told, listen, don't make it to Black. Make sure that you don't push away the audience we really care about, which is to say the white audience.

    So I think there's often a sense of, our audience is this. This is a person who's appealing, attractive, interesting to me as a producer. And, therefore, that's what should get the focus, vs. thinking about, what are the communities that you serve, and how do you serve those communities?

    In our doc, we talk to a former news president who says race is not a factor.

    That is just not true. That is just absolutely not true. The data does not hold that up. And so I think, until newsrooms are willing to say, like, why do we not care, maybe we should examine that, I don't know that you're going to get a lot of movement.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Soledad, in the law enforcement angle, is it the same issue at play there, bias? They're less incentivized to follow these stories?

  • Soledad O’Brien:

    I think so, and also a little bit about runaways.

    Many, many folks told us in the process of this documentary that the police would sort of push back and say, she's probably a runaway. Maybe she went to stay with her boyfriend.

    The idea that someone can be in a motel with their abuser covered with bite marks and only because of a chance call is able to be saved is just too horrible to kind of wrap your head around. People should be searching.

    But if you call someone a runaway, suddenly, there's much less of an interest in thinking that maybe you can help find them. They have run away. The folks at Black and Missing Foundation would say no one should be characterized as a runaway. If you're missing, you're missing. And that search should start immediately. Someone shouldn't be set home to say, maybe they will turn up. Let us know in a couple of days.

    We all know that the first 48 hours, obviously, are critical in gathering information about a person who might be missing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, it's a fascinating series, necessary storytelling.

    And the four-part HBO documentary series "Black and Missing" debuts tonight on HBO and HBO Max.

    Executive producer Soledad O'Brien, thank you so much for joining us tonight.

  • Soledad O’Brien:

    My pleasure. Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it's a story that deserves much more attention. We're so glad that it's getting it.

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