By MARY SANCHEZ
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
If Latoyia Figueroa was a pretty white woman, would you know her name? Would you know her beautiful mixed-race face, her cafe au lait skin, the cheery smile of her photo, or know the spelling of her Spanish surname?
Would you -- the general public -- have wondered how she could vanish after a doctor's appointment last month?
The question is raised on numerous Web sites.
Figueroa is pregnant; four months from delivering her second child. Philadelphia police have no breaks in the case. So the focus has shifted to what Figueroa represents to many: Proof of the widespread belief that media are only concerned with pretty, white women who go missing.
One Web blog writer dubed Figueroa the Jackie Robinson of missing, attractive women.
And another noted, "If Latoyia was white her face would be on TV screens, magazine covers, newspaper front pages and in post offices all over the U.S."
That is not entirely true.
Nor, is it entirely false.
Class and race
The effects of class and the clout it carries, is a bigger factor. Class, of course, is connected to race. More white people are affluent than black or Latino.
But a stronger query would be to ask: Would you know Latoyia Figueroa's name if she was from a wealthy, well-connected family? Or, had she disappeared in a popular vacation spot like the Aruba of the missing Natalee Holloway. The unsolved disappearance of Chandra Levy came under great public scrutiny not so much because she was white young woman; but because of her ties to a congressman.
The situation is not that editors and reporters are blatantly callous to the disappearance of one race or class level over another. What does happen is media people tend to focus on who they know about; and yes, sometimes who looks like them, and what the prurient interests of the public generate.
The approach is not racist in intent. But it often appears so in outcome.
That's the diversity argument. If more people in newsrooms were diverse; by class background, by race, by where they live, who they consider friends, the trickle down would be more diverse news stories.
Still, if editor's interest is peaked, they will assign reporters. And a little media coverage often snowballs. That is the formula that spawned the overdone media fury of Laci Peterson. Peterson is mentioned in many of the scoldings about coverage of Figueroa. She also was pregnant. And at least at first, seemingly disappeared without a trace.
But other factors motivated Peterson's story too.
For one, the smarmy actions of her husband, now better known as her convicted murderer. Another reality is this: National media realistically cannot give massive coverage to all of the thousands of people who go missing each year. More than half of the nation's missing are men; a group that people hear even less about.
Figueroa is the top photo on the FBI's Web site of missing persons. A safe bet is that most people have never heard of many of the other people profiled.
A squeaky wheel truth is often involved in sustaining media coverage. Missing people with families who are comfortable soliciting coverage get results. Vigils, marches; any event to keep the beloved in the news are well-worn ways to be the 6 o'clock news.
Having the connections to get billboards donated publicizing the missing doesn't hurt either.
In Figueroa's case, a man with a popular Web site became interested. Richard Blair raised the question of whether Figueroa's race impacted the lack of coverage.
Blair inadvertently answered his own question. His AllSpinZone site, urged others to pressure media. The result has been increased coverage, some of it national.
Yes, bias is a culprit in differing coverage. But so is class. And shallow news decisions. Rarely does outright racism keep a story off the air. If you've read this far, the most salient point should not be Figueroa's race.
Figueroa's 7-year-old daughter has been missing her mother for nearly a month. A baby may never be born. And a 24-year-old young woman has vanished.
X Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.