Missing white woman syndrome

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Missing white woman syndrome is a phrase used by social scientists to describe the extensive media coverage, especially in television, of missing person cases that involve young, white, upper-middle-class women or girls.[1] Sociologists define the media phenomenon as the undue focus on upper-middle-class white women who disappear, with the disproportionate degree of coverage they receive being compared to cases concerning missing women of other ethnicities and social classes, or with missing males of all social classes and ethnicities.[2][3]

The PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill is said to be the originator of the phrase.[3] Although the term was coined to describe disproportionate coverage of missing person cases, it is sometimes used to describe the disparity in news coverage of other violent crimes. The concept is similar to hierarchy of death, in which certain types of deaths garner more news coverage than others. Missing white woman syndrome has led to a number of tough on crime measures named for white women who went missing and were subsequently found harmed.

Media coverage[edit]

United States[edit]

With regard to missing children, statistical research which compares national media reports with FBI data shows that there is marked under-representation of African American children in media reports relative to non-African American children. A subsequent study found that girls from minority groups were the most under-represented in these missing-children news reports by a very large margin.[4]

A report that aired on CNN noted the differences between the level of media coverage given to attractive caucasian women like Murder of Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway, who went missing in 2002 and 2005 respectively, and LaToyia Figueroa, a pregnant Black/Hispanic woman. Figueroa went missing in Philadelphia the same year Holloway disappeared. Figueroa and her unborn daughter were found murdered.[5] The San Francisco Gate published an article detailing the disparity between the coverage of the Peterson case and that of Evelyn Hernandez, a Hispanic woman who was nine months pregnant when she disappeared in 2002.[6]

Kym Pasqualini, president of the National Center for Missing Adults, observed that media outlets tend to focus on "damsels in distress" – typically, affluent young white women and teenagers.[7]

Dr. Cory L. Armstrong pointed out in the Washington Post that "the pattern of choosing only young, white, middle-class women for the full damsel treatment says a lot about a nation that likes to believe it has consigned race and class to irrelevance".[3]


According to a study published in The Law and Society Association, aboriginal women who go missing in Canada receive 27 times less news coverage than white women; they also receive "dispassionate and less-detailed, headlines, articles, and images."[8]

United Kingdom[edit]

University of Leicester Criminology Professor Yvonne Jewkes cites the murder of Amanda Dowler, the murder of Sarah Payne, and the Soham murders as examples of "eminently newsworthy stories" about girls from "respectable" middle-class families and backgrounds whose parents used the news media effectively.[9] She writes that, in contrast, the street murder of Damilola Taylor initially received little news coverage, with reports initially concentrating upon street crime levels and community policing, and largely ignoring the victim. Even when Damilola's father flew into the UK from Nigeria to make press statements and television appearances, the level of public outcry did not, Jewkes asserts, reach "the near hysterical outpourings of anger and sadness that accompanied the deaths of Sarah, Milly, Holly, and Jessica".[9]

In January 2006, London Police Commissioner Ian Blair described the media as institutionally racist.[10][11] As an example, he had referred to the murder of two young girls in Soham in 2002. He said "almost nobody" understood why it became such a big story.[12] Two cases of missing white girl syndrome that have been given as contrasting examples: the murder of Hannah Williams and the murder of Danielle Jones. It was suggested that Jones received more coverage than Williams because Jones was a middle-class schoolgirl, whilst Williams was from a working-class background with a stud in her nose and estranged parents.[13]

Other alleged cases of disproportionate media interest[edit]

Jessica Lynch[edit]

Social commentaries pointed to media bias in the coverage of soldier Jessica Lynch versus that of her fellow soldiers, Shoshana Johnson and Lori Piestewa. All three were ambushed in the same attack during the Iraq War on March 23, 2003, with Piestewa being killed and Lynch and Johnson being injured and taken prisoner. Lynch, a young, blonde, white woman, received far more media coverage than Johnson (a black woman and a single mother) and Piestewa (a Hopi from an impoverished background, and also a single mother), with media critics suggesting that the media gave more attention to the woman with whom audiences supposedly more readily identify.[14][15]

Lynch herself leveled harsh criticism at this disproportionate coverage that focused only on her, stating in a congressional testimony before the United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:

I am still confused as to why they chose to lie and tried to make me a legend when the real heroics of my fellow soldiers that day were, in fact, legendary. People like Lori Piestewa and First Sergeant Dowdy who picked up fellow soldiers in harm's way. Or people like Patrick Miller and Sergeant Donald Walters who actually fought until the very end. The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals of heroes and they don't need to be told elaborate tales.[16]

Presumed kidnapping of "blonde angel" in Greece[edit]

In October 2013 a girl estimated to be about 4 years of age was found in the custody of a Roma couple in Greece and was presumed to have been abducted. The story about the "blonde angel" and the search for her biological parents received international media coverage. A Roma rights activist commented on the case to say "imagine if the situation were reversed and the children were brown and the parents were white".[17][18][19][20] The child was later identified as Maria Ruseva. Her biological mother was a Bulgarian Roma who gave Maria up for adoption.[21]

Cited instances[edit]

The following missing person cases have been cited as instances of missing white woman syndrome; researchers and journalists found that these instances garnered a disproportionate level of media coverage relative to contemporary cases involving missing girls/women of non-white ethnicities, and missing males of all ethnicities. The date of death or disappearance is given in parentheses.

  • Polly Klaas (October 1, 1993) – A 12-year-old girl who was found murdered. Her murderer was convicted.[22]
  • Kristen Modafferi (June 23, 1997) - An 18 year-old college student who disappeared from the San Francisco Bay Area and remains missing. Her disappearance, just 3 weeks after her 18th birthday, helped to establish Kristen's Law and the National Center for Missing Adults.[22]
  • Chandra Levy (May 1, 2001) – A 24-year-old intern, she was missing for several months and her skeletal remains were found. Her murderer was convicted.[22]
  • Elizabeth Smart (June 5, 2002) – A 14-year-old girl, missing for 9 months after being in captivity. Her captor was sentenced to life in prison.
  • Laci Peterson (December 24, 2002) – A 27-year-old pregnant woman murdered by her husband.[23]
  • Dru Sjodin (November 22, 2003) – A 22-year-old student who was found murdered.[22] Her murderer was convicted, and the case prompted the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Registry.[24]
  • Brooke Wilberger (May 24, 2004) – A 19-year-old student who was abducted and murdered. Her murderer revealed the location of her body and was convicted.[22]
  • Lori Hacking (July 19, 2004) – A 27-year-old woman murdered by her husband.[5][23]
  • Natalee Holloway (May 30, 2005) – An 18-year-old high school senior who disappeared in Aruba and remains missing. She was declared legally dead on January 12, 2012.[5][23]
  • Taylor Behl (September 5, 2005) – A 17-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University freshman who disappeared and was later found dead. Her murderer was convicted.[5]
  • Michelle Gardner-Quinn (October 7, 2006) – A 21-year-old undergraduate at the University of Vermont who disappeared and was later found dead. Her murderer was convicted.[25]
  • Tara Grant (February 9, 2007) – A 35-year-old woman murdered by her husband.[26]
  • Madeleine McCann (May 3, 2007) – A 3-year old girl who disappeared from her parents' hotel room during a family holiday in Portugal.[27][28][29] Described by The Daily Telegraph as "the most heavily reported missing-person case in modern history".[30]
  • Holly Bobo (April 13, 2011) – A 20 year-old nursing student who went missing from her home in Darden, Tennessee. Her remains were found in September 2014. Two men have been charged with her murder and kidnapping.[31]
  • Lauren Spierer (June 3, 2011) – A 20-year-old Indiana University student who disappeared after a night of drinking. She remains missing.[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Foreman, Tom (March 14, 2006). "Diagnosing 'Missing White Woman Syndrome'". CNN. There is no polite way to say it, and it is a fact of television news. Media and social critics call the wall-to-wall coverage that seems to swirl around these events, "Missing White Woman Syndrome." That was the phrase invoked by Sheri Parks, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, during our interview yesterday. 
  2. ^ Robinson, Eugene (June 10, 2005). "(White) Women We Love". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 7, 2011. Whatever our ultimate reason for singling out these few unfortunate victims, among the thousands of Americans who are murdered or who vanish each year, the pattern of choosing only young, white, middle-class women for the full damsel treatment says a lot about a nation that likes to believe it has consigned race and class to irrelevance. 
  3. ^ a b c Cory L. Armstrong (October 2013). Media Disparity: A Gender Battleground. Lexington Books. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-7391-8188-1. 
  4. ^ Min, Seong-Jae; John C Feaster (July–September 2010). "Missing Children in National News Coverage: Racial and Gender Representations of Missing Children Cases". Communication Research Reports (Routledge) 27 (3): 201–216. Retrieved May 9, 2013. 
  5. ^ a b c d "Race Bias in Media Coverage of Missing Women?; Cheryl Hines Dishes on New Show". CNN.com. March 17, 2006. Retrieved January 8, 2013. TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Natalee Holloway, Lori Hacking, Taylor Biehl, the list goes on and on. When pretty white females are killed or disappear, media storms follow. So much so that critics have coined a phrase for it. PARKS: Like everybody else, I call it the missing white woman syndrome. 
  6. ^ St. John, Kelly (April 21, 2003). "Eerily similar case languishes in obscurity; Torso of missing pregnant mom was found in S.F. Bay last year". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved November 24, 2010. 
  7. ^ Krajicek, David. "Damsels in Distress". TruTV.com. p. 3. Retrieved July 7, 2011. 
  8. ^ Gilchrist, Kristen (May 27, 2008). "Invisible Victims: Disparity in Print-News Media Coverage of Missing/Murdered Aboriginal and White Women". AllAcademic.com. Retrieved June 8, 2011. 
  9. ^ a b Yvonne Jewkes (2004). Media and Crime. London: Sage Publications. pp. 52–53. ISBN 0-7619-4765-5. 
  10. ^ "Met chief accuses media of racism". BBC News. January 26, 2006. 
  11. ^ "The story of two murder victims". BBC News. January 27, 2006. 
  12. ^ "Blair apologises to Soham parents". BBC News. January 27, 2006. 
  13. ^ Fiona Brookman (2005). Understanding Homicide. London: Sage Publications. p. 257. ISBN 0-7619-4755-8. 
  14. ^ Douglas, Williams (November 9, 2003). "A case of race? One POW acclaimed, another ignored". Seattle Times. Archived from the original on December 6, 2004. Retrieved January 8, 2013. 
  15. ^ Davidson, Osha Gray (May 27, 2004). "The Forgotten Soldier". Rolling Stone Magazine. Archived from the original on February 24, 2009. Retrieved July 31, 2007. 
  16. ^ "Testimony of Jessica Lynch". House.gov. Archived from the original on February 20, 2009. Retrieved February 2, 2009. 
  17. ^ Tips pour in after blonde girl 'without an identity' found in Roma camp in Greece NBC News October 20, 2013
  18. ^ Antonia Blumberg (October 28, 2013), Why the Roma 'Blond Angel' Ignited a Week of Racial Profiling Huffington Post
  19. ^ Ashley Adams (November 8, 2013), Abduction case reveals bias on basis of race Collegiate Times
  20. ^ For the Roma, Fears of kidnapping in Europe Only Mirror Their Own The New York Times October 10, 2013
  21. ^ Associated Press (October 25, 2013). "DNA tests confirm Maria's mother as Bulgarian Sasha Ruseva". Guardian. 
  22. ^ a b c d e Johnson, Alex (July 23, 2004). "Damsels in distress: If you’re missing, it helps to be young, white and female". MSNBC.com. Retrieved July 7, 2011. 
  23. ^ a b c Foreman, Tom (March 14, 2006). "Diagnosing 'Missing White Woman Syndrome'". CNN.
  24. ^ "House panel passes 'Dru's Law' in sex offender bill". USA Today. July 27, 2005. Retrieved January 8, 2013. 
  25. ^ Floyd, Jami (July 10, 2008). "Remembering Michelle". CNN.com. Retrieved January 8, 2012. 
  26. ^ George Hunter; Melissa Ann Preddy (October 2009). Limb from Limb. Pinnacle Books. p. 76. ISBN 978-0-7860-2292-2. 
  27. ^ Jones, Ozen (April 21, 2013). "Our shameful hierarchy - some deaths matter more than others". The Independent. Retrieved March 27, 2014. 
  28. ^ Barton, Robin L. (August 22, 2011). "The "Missing White Woman Syndrome"". Investigative News Network. Retrieved March 23, 2014. 
  29. ^ Laccino, Ludovica (March 20, 2014). "What is 'Missing White Woman Syndrome'? Racism in Media Coverage". International Business Times. Retrieved March 23, 2014. 
  30. ^ "Master of media circus for Madeleine McCann". The Daily Telegraph. April 24, 2008. Retrieved March 27, 2014. 
  31. ^ Barton, Robin L. (August 22, 2011). "The "Missing White Woman Syndrome"". 
  32. ^ Majchrowicz, Michael (November 9, 2011). "Beyond the posters: How demographics factored in Spierer, Grubb cases". Indiana Daily Student. 

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