Following the wide attention recently given to the tragic case of 17-year-old Norma Lopez, the Inland Empire teenager whose body was found in a field in Moreno Valley this week, it's fair to ask if the news media still give more air time and ink to missing white women than they do to females of color. Other recent missing-woman cases, including African-American Angeleno Mitrice Richardson and slain Brazilian restaurateur Monica Beresford-Redman, have garnered national headlines.

Still, one academic insists that white women who go off the map end up with a lot more headlines and air time.

Dr. Mia Moody, assistant professor of journalism and media arts at Baylor University, reported this month that Anglo women, particularly ones who are not overweight, still get the spotlight.

“Missing white woman syndrome” — favorable coverage of missing Anglo females, particularly in the slow news season of summer, has not changed much in the decade since the phrase was coined, the prof argues. She has used her students to comb through newspaper and television coverage of missing women in the United States.

Some of the results will be included in a forthcoming book, Invisible Damsels: Media's Framing of Women, Minorities and the Elderly. She focused most intently on the 2002-2005 coverage of Laci Peterson, 27, Lori Hacking, 27, Tamika Huston, 24, and Latoyia Figueroa, also 24, finding that coverage of the former two — both described as white — was more fawning and widespread. The latter two are African-American and black-and-Latina, respectively.

“Besides being white, appearance — particularly if a missing woman was young and attractive — played a major role in whether a missing woman received media attention,” according to a Baylor statement on the prof's research.

One big mistake here — and it's possible the professor dealt with it in her original research that was not linked by Baylor's statement — is that Laci Peterson is, in fact, half Latina: She was born Laci Denise Rocha.

Anecdotal and more timely evidence suggests that missing women of color are increasingly appearing on the radar of news media. Of course often they're young, attractive, middle class, or successful — which agrees in part with Moody's argument. They're just not white. At least not always in the traditional sense (as in the case of Peterson, who could appear to be Anglo).

Richardson, who's African-American, is young, good looking and educated. Lopez was a cute teenager. Nancy Salas, the 22-year-old ex-UCLA student who was found after she was reported missing from her Glendale home is cute and middle class. Beresford-Redman was attractive, owned a restaurant and was married to a television producer.

The professor has a point: Good looking women of a certain educational attainment and class get more attention — certainly more than, say, a missing, working-class black man, which you almost never hear about. But her theory about “missing white women syndrome” still being in play in the media should probably be updated. Journalists, at least those in Southern California, appear to have changed their ways for the better.

LA Weekly