Pregnant Black Woman Missing; Where's the Laci Peterson-Like Coverage?
Date: Sunday, July 31, 2005
By: Monica Lewis, BlackAmericaWeb.com
Latoyia Figueroa is far from a blond, blue-eyed belle of the Bible Belt south. Nor is she a petite housewife from a California suburb. But like Natalee Holloway, the Alabama teenager last seen in Aruba over Memorial Day weekend, Figueroa has apparently vanished without a trace, and like Laci Peterson, Figueroa's loved ones are as concerned about her whereabouts as they are for the unborn child she is carrying.
It's been two weeks since Figueroa went missing, yet her story hasn't garnered nearly half of the national spotlight captured by Holloway, Peterson, Lori Hacking or Jennifer Milbanks in the days following their respective disappearances. A story about Figueroa, a 24-year-old mother from Philadelphia, appeared on CNN for the first time nearly 10 days after she was reported missing. A recent check of transcripts of the cable network's "Larry King Live" talk show found at least 10 episodes in which Holloway was the primary story, an average of one night a week since the girl's May 30 disappearance.
Figueroa was last seen on July 18, and police received a missing persons report on July 21.
When it comes to fair news coverage, it's simply a matter of who's running the show in the nation's newsrooms, Phillip Dixon, chairman of Howard University's Department of Journalism, told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
"For the most part, people of color are underrepresented when it comes down to making decisions on what stories get covered and what stories don't get covered," said Dixon, a former editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, which did not run a story on Figueroa until July 27, citing that cases of missing adults are not rare.
"A big part of it is that people get excited about things they are familiar with and things that they treasure," Dixon said. "It's the default response -- if it looks like my daughter, I care more than if it looks like your daughter."
Oftentimes, Dixon added, if something negative happens to a black person, it's viewed by journalists as the status quo.
"It's all about the expectations that people have," Dixon said. "Bad things are not supposed to happen to blond, blue-eyed girls. So, it may strike [white journalists] as less newsy" when bad things happen to blacks.
It's not yet known what exactly has happened to Figueroa, a single mother of a seven-year-old girl. On the day she went missing, Figueroa had an appointment with her obstetrician to check the health of her five-month-old fetus. Stephen Pouche, the unborn child's father and Figueroa's reported boyfriend, accompanied her to the doctor's office. While not identified as a suspect, Pouche is considered by Philadelphia police to be the last person to see Figueroa.
Relatives became worried when Figueroa, a good and caring mother by all accounts, failed to pick up her daughter, Izhanae, from daycare. The next day, she didn't show up for work at a T.G.I. Friday's restaurant, where she is a waitress. Police say her cell phone and credit cards have not been used since July 18, the day she was last seen.
Figueroa's family and friends, including Anthony Williams, Figueroa's high school sweetheart and Izhanae's father, question Pouche's supposedly nonchalant attitude and questionable behavior regarding the investigation. Pouche hasn't been actively involved in distributing fliers throughout the city, as many of Figueroa's loved ones have, and last week, he called in to a popular radio station to explain on-air why he thought Figueroa "went away," citing "stress" as a major factor.
News reports have also said that Figueroa and another woman said to have been pregnant with Pouche's child didn't get along, although they were not considered rivals. Police have not said whether the other woman was somehow involved in an April robbery attempt of Figueroa, then two months pregnant, in which she was confronted by a woman who pulled her jacket and kicked her in the stomach.
Tragically, Figueroa's mother, Ann Taylor, faced an untimely death in 1985. News reports claim Taylor, 22, was found dead by police on a North Philadelphia street, her throat slashed. Friends told the Philadelphia Daily News that Figueroa often feared such a demise would befall her.
On July 28, ten days after Figueroa's disappearance, police deployed cadets and canine units to extensively search a park near Pouche's home.
A member of the department's public affairs unit declined to speak with BlackAmericaWeb.com on Friday, but later that day, it was announced that the department's Homicide Unit would be taking over the investigation from the investigatory unit that covers the section of Philadelphia where Figueroa was last seen. The move, according to police, was made because the homicide unit has a "myriad of available resources and personnel" to handle the case.
It's a move that should have been done long before Friday, said Richard Blair, a man who is credited with helping Figueroa's case get the relatively scant national media coverage that it has received to date.
A 51-year-old operations manager from the Philadelphia metropolitan region, Blair decided to email CNN personality Nancy Grace, a former prosecutor known for speaking up for victims' rights, about the circumstances surrounding Figueroa's disappearance. Blair, a blogger with http://www.allspinzone.com, posted the message on his website last week, kicking off a flurry of activity, from enhanced media coverage to the start of the $10,000 reward fund to find Figueroa.
Blair, who is white, believes that race is not the only factor in the lack of media coverage regarding Figueroa's story.
"To me, this whole story speaks of socio-economic divides, as well as racial divides," Blair told BlackAmericaWeb.com, adding that the same thing could have happened to a young, pregnant white woman in a low-to-moderate income area of Philadelphia whose family simply didn't have the means or knowledge to get the story out.
As the father of a young woman near Figueroa's age, Blair said he felt compelled to act on his thoughts about the mediocre media coverage. Since his missive to Grace, Blair has been called by network, radio and cable talk shows, as well as newspapers across the country seeking interviews, including Grace and conservative MSNBC talking head Tucker Carlson. During a show last week, Carlson discussed the role race is playing and credited Blair for his jumping to action.
"(Blair's} point was the obvious one. And it is that black women from city centers, from urban areas, who disappear get none of the coverage that those like Natalee Holloway get, who are obviously from a different demographic. And, you know, it's impossible to deny the truth of this," Carlson said on air.
The next day, CNN, MSNBC, and FOX were showing pictures of Figueroa and aerial shots of Philadelphia police combing the area in which she was last seen.
However, Blair doesn't consider himself a hero and has been somewhat mum on the matter, choosing only to speak with BlackAmericaWeb.com, a Philadelphia newspaper, a local talk radio show and Ed Gordon's National Public Radio show.
For Blair, who has exchanged email messages with members of Figueroa's family, the primary concern for everyone should be finding Figueroa alive and well. Once that happens, we can move on to discussing another matter that needs to be addressed, Blair said.
"The crux of the matter is that nobody was talking about it. It just seemed like nobody cared," Blair said, adding that local media didn't necessarily jump on the story until days after Figueroa's disappearance. Media coverage is important in cases like this, Blair said, not just to keep the public informed and alert, but also to keep pressure on law enforcement to not let a case go cold.
"(Fair news coverage) is a dialogue that has been screaming to be had," Blair said. "Obviously, it's a backburner issue until Latoyia is found, but we really need to have that dialogue. And I think this is a great opportunity to have that national discussion."