Alexis Johnson worked for three long years alongside her Vice colleagues on “When Black Women Go Missing.” The Penn Hills native and former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette digital news editor called the 70-minute documentary “the hardest thing I have ever worked on.”

Johnson and the others knew mainstream media and law enforcement overlook missing and murdered black women too often. Just comparing the coverage of the September 2021 killing of Gabrielle Petito by her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, during a cross-country trip proved that claim, she said. That went viral, all the way to coverage of Laundrie’s suicide a few months later in Florida.

It took Johnson and the others time to convince the families of the three main women featured in the doc to consent to in-depth interviews. They also had to convince their bosses to “let us create an hourlong piece and do it right.” It had been covered on Vice news reports to some extent, but not in the form to bring the issue the proper attention they believed it deserved.

It aired on Tubi, which had an agreement with Vice, on March 29.

Vice’s precarious financial situation — it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2023 and laid off a number of staff and shut down its flagship “Vice News Tonight” before being sold to the Fortress Investment Group — overshadowed everything and filled Johnson and the others with additional stress. “When Black Women Go Missing” closed out Johnson’s and the others’ careers at the digital media company; they had stayed on after another round of layoffs in February to finish it. Vice opted for partnerships to distribute its broadcast content with services such as Tubi, and it dropped its website, this year, too, to cut costs.

Johnson is back in town for the Video Consortium Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation’s screening of her work Friday. Seats have filled up fast; only about a dozen spots remain. A question-and-answer period, led by PBMF President Deborah Todd, will follow.

Johnson left the PG after she was pulled off Black Lives Matter protest coverage after she posted a satirical tweet comparing the aftermath of a Kenny Chesney concert to those protests. PG management said the tweet showed bias and it violated the company’s social media policy, although the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, the union that represents editorial workers, said no such policy existed. She filed a federal civil lawsuit against the paper, claiming it violated the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1964. She then joined the Vice staff in Washington, D.C., where she continues to reside, and dropped the lawsuit over expenses associated with it two years later.

At Vice she covered politics, race and culture. She appeared on multiple platforms including “Vice News Tonight,” “Vice” on Showtime, “Counter Space,” “Breaking the Vote,” and “Vice News Reports” podcast. She also appeared across Vice’s social platforms including TikTok and Twitch, according to her website

She has covered national stories including the 2020 general election, the 2022 midterms, the aftermath of Jan. 6, the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the Derek Chauvin verdict, the arrest and detainment of Brittney Griner, the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the fall of Roe v. Wade, and the death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police. She was awarded a 2023 Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Television Political Journalism for her coverage of death threats made against election workers after the 2020 presidential election and the attack on American democracy.

She also reported on cultural topics such as Black spirituality, the struggles of Black TikTok influencers and diversity in the pilot industry, a story that was nominated for a 2023 News and Documentary Emmy. She has also appeared as a host of the digital series “Vice Debates,” moderating a panel about colorism that reached over half a million viewers on YouTube.

All this culminated with her final Vice project. She and her co-directors and co-producers Jan Hendrik Hinzel and Arlissa Norman worked on it, following Katy Sheward, who had the original idea for it but without a host and who pitched it to the broadcast company. Sheward was laid off in a first round of Vice job cuts. 

Alexis Johnson (Simone Perez)

As a Black woman, Johnson said she was an obvious host choice. But she brought more to the production: empathy. Her 21-yearold brother was murdered when she was 16.

As the work progressed and she and the others interviewed family members of the featured women, Johnson found the conversations triggering. But she pushed on. “It made me a better journalist,” she said. “I could be empathetic with the families. Who we are makes us better journalists.”

The documentary focuses on three women, according to its trailer:

  • Shamari Brantley, who was found in November 2023 in a Manhattan Apple store after someone located her cellphone at a Bronx subway station. She had made contact with a man in the Bronx, the family had learned, and they made a number of trips there looking for the 22-year-old who suffers from schizophrenia.   
  • Brittany Clardy, a Minnesota woman who was murdered in 2013 by a man who had  solicited sexual services she’d advertised on the since-shuttered website Backpage. It was his second murder. As a result, Minnesota created the Brittany Clardy Act establishing an Office of Missing and Murdered Black Women and Girls.
  • Krystal Anderson, a young mother from Wagener, South Carolina, who had a fight with her boyfriend in August 2022 and has never been seen again. He and his son have both been arrested after his burned car was discovered by authorities. Her body has never been found.

The documentary had several iterations and news points, Johnson said, throughout its production. The Minnesota task force and subsequent act were one, and others stemmed from investigations and searches for missing women. 

One theme that Johnson and the team wanted to make is that often when missing Black women do get media coverage, they are sexualized, racialized and criminalized. An example, Johnson said, is that unlike white young women, they are not seen as ensnared in human trafficking but rather as prostitutes.

“We really worked this all out through a storytelling aspect,” she said. “We got into sex trafficking in this, too, [as mostly] online sex solicitations, with the grooming of young girls and putting them into trafficking and earning money. Police may call them a runaway, but they were lured away.

“We really wanted to cover their story. Young innocent girls can get caught up in it. We don’t want to think of this as a society. It’s a deep, dark underground thing. [Sex trafficking is] usually someone you know or are familiar with.”

That part is personal to her as well, as Johnson said she has young nieces “who could get caught up in all of this.” And she knows personally young girls who are missing.

“We really wanted to humanize these victims,” Johnson said. “These families don’t trust the media. We really wanted to build that trust.”

To do so, Johnson and the team had several conversations with family members before filming and background conversations. “We took breaks if they were crying or uncomfortable,” she said.

And for her and her crew, “You take that all home with you. On top of that, our jobs were up in the air every day. We knew layoffs were coming. When the project ended, our jobs would end, too.”

The team had enough material for three hours, but 70 minutes was the set length. Johnson lauded the editing team — Ilaria Polsonetti, Scott Mulligan, Kassidy Dillon, Angela Rath, Ben Miller, Will Mason, Simone Perez and Jika Gonzalez — for taking all the material and working hard to pull it all together.

Since she lost her position, Johnson has been working on freelance projects. One has been with the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system. She worked on an eight-episode collaboration between it and Vice called “Inside Story: The U.S. Justice System From Those Who Lived It.”

A second season is wrapping up production and will air on YouTube, too, and possibly elsewhere. Johnson said the first season has aired in prisons, so participants in the filming can see it.

One final hard thing for Johnson and the others is there cannot be a part two on this important topic. When victims and family members reach out to her after seeing it, she directs them to the advocates and all the resources included in the documentary. Johnson said the feedback from those sources has been complimentary.

Nick Childers, leader of Video Consortium Pittsburgh, had worked with Johnson and other Vice staff on some freelance projects. He and his fellow visual artists have created backyard docs, and this just fits in, he said, in a series that embodies the “do-it-yourself spirit” of his fellow videographers and photojournalists.

This topic, too, resonates with him. “One reason this is so important to people to Pittsburgh is Tonee Turner,” he said, referring to the young Hazelwood women who has been missing since 2019 and is memorialized in a mural on a Second Avenue storefront.  “Every city has a good amount of Black women who go missing. It’s something we need to talk about. We should all be just as worried about who they are and where they went.”

The Video Consortium and PBMF’s screening is set for 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday. Limited seats are left; reservations can be made here. Main sponsor for the event is 100 Days in Appalachia; PBMF and Doc Salon are presenting partners, with Lightbulb Rentals and Malhari Media as screening sponsors. The documentary also can be watched on Tubi.

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at