This is an update to a 2005 Dateline NBC story on the disappearance of a missing young woman whose case received very little media attention at the time she vanished. You can read the original story here, and a column written by NBC correspondent Josh Mankiewicz on racial profiling in the media here. Below is the video of the original report, followed by an update on the case.
By Josh Mankiewicz, NBC News Correspondent
Tamika Huston was only 24 when she vanished. And at the time, pretty much no one paid any attention.
Her family sounded the alarm, of course, and the police in Spartanburg, S.C. went to work. At her home, officers found her cell phone, drivers license, and some uncashed paychecks. It didn't seem that Tamika had just taken off without telling anyone. They found her car on the other side of town.
Tamika's family did all they could to find her. And the sad truth is that she was probably killed before anyone started looking. Her murder was eventually solved and the killer led police to her remains.
But just as sad was what followed her disappearance. In a journalistic world seemingly obsessed with Laci, Natalee, Madeleine, and countless others, Tamika's family couldn't persuade any national news media to cover her story. Her aunt, Rebkah Howard, is a professional public-relations executive who contacted all the cable news networks and all the broadcast networks, and no one would even call her back. She called the TODAY show and Good Morning America. Yes, she tried Dateline NBC specifically. We didn't get back to her, either.
At that time, hours of airtime had been spent, both at NBC and our competitors, dissecting the smallest incremental developments in the search for other missing women, but Tamika Huston remained invisible.
And why was that? Maybe because those other missing women were white and Tamika was black. That's what Rebkah Howard believes, and she has a powerful case.
Most of the missing people in the United States are men, according to the FBI. Minorities represent a much higher percentage of the missing than of the population at large. But if you watch TV news, you'll get the impression that the only people missing in this country are female, attractive, and white.
It's not that my bosses --or their opposite numbers at other networks-- are racists. They're not. What they are interested in is building an audience, and the data pretty clearly show that stories like Natalee Holloway or Laci Peterson work with viewers, meaning people tune in and stay tuned in. And one of the sad truths of television --in news and elsewhere-- is that what works is what you, the viewer, will see more of.
In 2005, Dateline Producer Lai Ling Jew and I assembled a story about the disparity in news coverage of missing people, and focused on Tamika's case. We received quite a response, both from inside and outside the news business. And I think we changed the culture a little, particularly here at NBC.
Now Tamika's aunt Rebkah has started The Tamika Huston Foundation for the Missing, designed to help other families who find themselves living a similar horror: someone near and dear to them is missing, and the mainstream electronic media doesn't seem to care, or at the very least, won't take notice.
The Foundation will help families with media outreach, web-page development, and offer tips on how to deal with law enforcement. It's already helped with the case of William Van Croft, a 17-year-old with Asperger's Syndrome who disappeared in Washington, DC in January 2009.
Rebkah is working within the system that once shut her out. As it was with victim's advocacy groups, progress won't be quick or easy. Making people think differently never is.