Why the disappearance of 3-year-old Major Harris didn't garner national media attention
When 3-year-old Major Harris was declared missing it was front-page news in Wisconsin. His mother, Mallery Muenzenberger, had been found dead in Milwaukee. No one knew for certain what had happened to Major, until his body was discovered a week later, a few miles away from where his mother was found.
But unlike other missing people, like Gabby Pettito, Major Harris’ disappearance wasn’t widely reported by the national media. That could be because of who he was: a Black boy. Research has found that media coverage tends to focus on white, female people who are missing, something that has come to be known as "missing white women syndrome" by social scientists.
"They may do a one day story on an Indigenous or a Black woman who's missing, whereas a missing white woman tends to be an every day check-in, they come back to the story ever day," says Michael Mirer, a visiting assistant professor in the department of journalism, advertising, and media studies at UW-Milwaukee.
It's hard to know for sure why these biases exist, but it may be partly due to who is telling these stories. Newsrooms tend to run by white journalists, who may be more invested in stories about missing white people and women more specifically. Another reason could be the perceived preferences of readers, who also tend to be white. But Mirer says that rationale can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
He explains, "If a reporter believes that something’s going to be more interesting to the audience they’ll produce news about it, and then it becomes more interesting because the act of producing the news makes it seem more relevant to people in the audience."
These disparities are the product of many individual, editorial decisions, making it difficult to find solutions. Mirer says that being mindful of the stories we engage with or discuss can be part of the solution to bridging this gap. It's a critical step, since increased media attention can often lead to more attention from police, politicians, and other officials in charge of investigating these disappearances.
"The choices that journalists make don't happen in a vacuum. Coverage tends to push people to act. So when journalists take up a Gabby Petito story but not a Major Harris story, public figures - our police departments - are going to react to that," says Mirer.