Missing White Woman Syndrome: It’s Not a Media Myth

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Missing and Murdered Women, Canada 2008. Illustration by Renegade98 via Flickr

What seemed a shocking statistic out of Washington D.C last month spurred an outcry over the attention (or lack thereof) to missing-persons cases that involve girls and young women.

The statistic, which suggested 14 girls had gone missing in the span of 24 hours, was wrong. In fact, according to Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department,  which called the figure exaggerated, the number of cases of missing children has actually declined slightly so far in 2017—compared to previous years.

But not all of the criticism is misplaced. Many observers were troubled by the fact that the girls who were missing  did not seem to be garnering much media attention, given that all of them appeared to be African American.

Commentators and academics have long targeted perceived disparities in coverage of crime tied to gender and race. In the specific context of missing persons, the critique has been dubbed “Missing White Woman Syndrome” or “Missing White Girl Syndrome.”  And as the name suggests, the argument is that missing white women and girls—in particular young, wealthy, attractive white women and girls—garner a disproportionate share of the news coverage dedicated to missing-persons cases.

Examples abound.

The disappearances of Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway, and Lauren Spierer—all of them young white women—have dominated American news cycles. However, less clear is whether empirical evidence supports the “syndrome” on a broader scale.

Surprisingly, despite the substantial amount of time and energy spent trying to explain “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” very little empirical work involving a broad examination of news coverage of missing-persons cases has been done.

In a recent study, I found that disparities do, in fact, exist at two different stages of news coverage of missing-persons cases.

I examined every missing-person news story published on four major news sites (CNN.com, ChicagoTribune.com, AJC.com (The Atlanta Journal Constitution website), and StarTribune.com (The Minneapolis Star Tribune website) in 2013. When I compared the data to the national rates compiled by the FBI, African-American missing persons were significantly underrepresented in the news.

Girls and women were significantly overrepresented.

But these disparities are also compounded by a second factor.

Among those individuals who do receive news coverage, there are additional differences in terms of the amount of coverage—its “intensity”—that each missing individual receives. Gender and race disparities are actually magnified when considering the quantity of news coverage. To illustrate, about 33% of the missing persons appearing on the four websites were white women and girls, but stories about those individuals comprised almost 50% of the total coverage.

As a result, there seem to be two different stages of disparities, which are likely driven by editorial decisions about the news value of the story.

Such inequalities in the determination of “newsworthiness” have important implications.  Consumers’ views about crime in general are influenced by news reports. A disproportionate focus on missing white women reduces public pressure on authorities to focus on minority groups who are seen to somehow matter less.

More research is needed in this area, but if coverage disparities are indeed directly contributing to a fundamentally unfair allocation of police resources, that affects the chances of discovering the fate of the missing individual.

So what can be done to address Missing White Woman Syndrome?

The most obvious changes must come from the newsroom. News agencies need to make a concerted effort to present a more demographically representative population of missing persons in their coverage, while also ensuring that there are not systematic differences in coverage intensity.

They also must be cognizant of how they represent different types of missing persons.  Previous studies have found evidence that people of color are more often presented in a negative light in news stories on crime. Factors such as the type of pictures shown of the missing persons or the kinds of descriptors used to characterize them or their cases can unfairly prejudice audiences’ views of these individuals.

Zach Sommers

Increasing awareness of these potential pitfalls can help reduce these harmful disparities.

Going missing, after all, is a tragedy that affects all ethnic groups and genders. Media coverage should make that clear.

Editor’s Note: For another view, see TCR columnist Robin Barton’s  Op Ed

Zach Sommers is a Law and Science Fellow at Northwestern University. His research focuses on criminal law and perceptions of crime, and he is the author of Missing White Woman Syndrome: An Empirical Analysis of Race and Gender Disparities in Online News Coverage of Missing Persons. Your comments are welcome.


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