Gaining the trust of a missing young mother’s family, AP tells her tragic story, illustrating the factors behind the disappearance and killing of Native American women across the U.S.
In a powerful all-formats package that resonated for days with audiences and advocates, reporter and video journalist Gillian Flaccus documented the seemingly intractable problem of missing and slain Indigenous women by highlighting the case of one young mother in Northern California.
Portland, Oregon-based Flaccus and freelance photographer Nathan Howard traveled to Northern California’s rugged Lost Coast to tell the story of Emmilee Risling, who had behaved erratically for months, hitchhiking and wandering naked through two Native American reservations and a small town. When she was charged with a petty crime, her family hoped she would be forced by authorities to get help. Instead, she was released in October and has been missing ever since.
Risling’s disappearance and the ongoing rise in missing and exploited Indigenous women prompted the Yurok Tribe to declare a state of emergency and brought increased urgency to efforts to build the first comprehensive database of such cases in California. The AP team used Risling’s story as a narrative thread to illustrate the factors that contribute to the disappearance and murder of Native women. The situation is dire as studies show Native American women face murder rates almost three times those of white women overall — and up to 10 times the national average.
“You say, ‘OK, how did we get to this situation where we’re losing our children?’” said Judge Abby Abinanti, chief judge of the Yurok Tribal Court.
Flaccus and Howard spent time with local officials trying to combat the problem, pressed law enforcement outside the reservations about why more wasn’t being done and, most powerfully, detailed the anguish Risling’s disappearance has caused for her family, especially her young son. Risling’s family had never talked to any media before and Flaccus went through several intermediaries to convince them to share the family’s story.
“It’s real difficult when you deal with the grandkids, and the grandkid says, ‘Grandpa, can you take me down the river and can we look for my mama?’ What do you tell him? ‘We’re looking, we’re looking every day,’” said Gary Risling, choking back tears. “And then he says, ‘What happens if we can’t find her?”
With text and video by Flaccus and evocative photos by Howard, the all-formats package scored near the top of AP’s reader engagement for the better part of a week — at a time when massive news like the run-up to the Ukraine invasion was dominating headlines. The story was used prominently across the U.S. West, including in Oregon’s largest newspaper and by large regional TV stations.
The video was produced by Seattle-based video journalist Manuel Valdes, and the story was edited by West Desk enterprise editor Katie Oyan; digital storyteller Samantha Shotzbarger assembled the text and visual elements into a compelling online presentation.
Flaccus received praise from people who have been working on this matter for years, thanking her and AP for the comprehensive and sensitive work. Gabe Galanda, a prominent Indigenous rights attorney in Seattle, tweeted: “Thank you @gflaccus for the most powerful #MMIWG story I’ve ever read. We need more such ‘360’ coverage of the epidemic.”
For compelling coverage of one woman’s disappearance to shine a light on a crisis besetting Native Americans, the team of Flaccus, Howard, Valdes and Oyan is AP’s Best of the Week — Second Winner.