2 Girls Vanished. The Media Told Us About One of Them

Elizabeth Smart's disappearance got tons of press. Alexis Patterson's didn't
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted May 7, 2022 3:25 PM CDT
2 Girls Vanished. The Media Treated Their Cases Differently
   (Getty Images)

(Newser) – You almost certainly know the name Elizabeth Smart. You almost just as certainly don't know the name Alexis Patterson. The Milwaukee 7-year-old vanished on her walk to school roughly one month before Smart was taken from her Utah bedroom in 2002. In a lengthy piece for USA Today, Gina Barton and Ashley Luthern examine "what two missing child cases say about 'missing white woman syndrome,'" a term created by Gwen Ifill in 2004 to describe the disparity in the treatment of missing white and Black people by the media and law enforcement. Smart is white, Patterson is Black, and as Barton and Luthern write, their cases were treated differently from the start. Smart's case aired on major programs like Larry King Live within hours of her going missing. It was two days before Patterson's disappearance was even covered locally.

Even their own paper followed that pattern: Three stories about Smart within two weeks, but "none focused on Patterson." As for what is known about Patterson's case: Her stepfather walked her to the corner on the morning of May 3, 2002, and a crossing guard shepherded her across the street toward her school, which sat 242 steps from her home. It was only when she didn't return home after school that her mother learned she never showed up that day. She was initially labeled a runaway; that morning her mother told her she couldn't bring cupcakes to school for her class because her homework wasn't finished, and they argued. (The article is the first a months-long look by USA Today into these disparities in missing children cases and what can be done about them. Read the full article, which delves deep into what's known about Patterson's case, here.)

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