Missing white woman syndrome

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Missing white woman syndrome is a phrase used by social scientists[1][2][3] and media commentators to describe the extensive media coverage, especially in television, of missing person cases involving young, white, upper middle class women or girls.[4] Instances have been cited in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The phenomenon is defined as the media's undue focus on upper-middle-class white women who disappear, with the disproportionate degree of coverage they receive being compared to cases of missing men, or women of color and of lower social classes.[5][6]

PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill was said to be the originator of the phrase.[6] Charlton McIlwain, a professor at New York University, defines the syndrome as white women perpetually occupying a privileged role as violent crime victims in news media reporting, and concludes that missing white woman syndrome functions as a type of racial hierarchy in the cultural imagery of the West.[7] 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. Missing white woman syndrome has led to a number of right-wing tough on crime measures that were named for white women who went missing and were subsequently found harmed.[8][9]

Moody, Dorris and Blackwell (2008)[10] concluded that in addition to race and class, factors such as supposed attractiveness, body size and youthfulness function as unfair criteria in the determination of newsworthiness in coverage of missing women. Also noteworthy was that news coverage of missing black women was more likely to focus on the victim’s baggage, such as abusive boyfriends or a troubled past, while coverage of white women tends to focus on their roles as mothers or daughters.[11]

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.[12] Zach Sommers, a sociologist at Northwestern University noted that while there is a sizable body of research that shows that white people are more likely than people of color to appear in news coverage as victims of violent crime there is relatively little when it comes to missing persons cases. In 2013, Sommers cross-referenced the missing persons coverage of four national and local media outlets against the FBI's missing persons database. Sommers found black people received disproportionately less coverage than whites and men received disproportionately less coverage than women; Sommers could not directly assess the number of missing white women in the FBI files due to how the data was structured but concluded that there was circumstantial—although not statistically conclusive—evidence that white women received disproportionate coverage.[13][14]

A report that aired on CNN noted the differences between the level of media coverage given to Caucasian women like 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.[15] The San Francisco Chronicle 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.[16]

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.[17]

Dr. Cory L. Armstrong wrote 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".[6]


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."[18]

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.[19] 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".[19]

In January 2006, London Police Commissioner Ian Blair described the media as institutionally racist.[20][21] 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.[22] 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.[23]

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.[24][25]

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.[26]

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 Romani rights activist commented on the case to say "imagine if the situation were reversed and the children were brown and the parents were white".[27][28][29][30] The child was later identified as Maria Ruseva. Her biological mother was a Bulgarian Roma who gave Maria up for adoption.[31]

Cited instances[edit]

The following missing person cases have been cited as instances of missing white woman syndrome; media commentators on the phenomenon regard them as garnering a disproportionate level of media coverage relative to contemporary cases involving missing girls or 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 and sentenced to death.[32]
  • 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.[32]
  • Chandra Levy (May 1, 2001) – A 24-year-old intern, she was missing until her skeletal remains were found in May 2002.[32]
  • 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.[33]
  • Dru Sjodin (November 22, 2003) – A 22-year-old student who was found murdered.[32] Her murderer was convicted, and the case prompted the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Registry.[34]
  • 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.[32]
  • Lori Hacking (July 19, 2004) – A 27-year-old woman murdered by her husband.[15][33]
  • 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.[15][33]
  • Taylor Behl (September 5, 2005) – A 17-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University freshman who disappeared and was later found dead. Her murderer was convicted.[15]
  • 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.[35]
  • Tara Grant (February 9, 2007) – A 35-year-old woman murdered by her husband.[36]
  • Madeleine McCann (May 3, 2007) – A 3-year-old girl who disappeared from her parents' hotel room during a family holiday in Portugal.[37][38][39] Described by The Daily Telegraph as "the most heavily reported missing-person case in modern history".[40]
  • 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.[38]
  • Lauren Spierer (June 3, 2011) – A 20-year-old Indiana University student who disappeared after a night of drinking. She remains missing.[41]
  • Aisling Symes (October 5, 2009) – A 2-year-old girl who disappeared from her home in Auckland, New Zealand. She was feared abducted but her body was found in a drain near her home a week later, and it was determined that she was the victim of accidental drowning after wandering off from her mother's side while she was carrying out household chores. The family of Srikanth Rayadurgam, a missing 23-year-old Indian man, suggested that race was a factor in police diverting resources from his case to that of the Symes case. Tim Hulme, writing for The Sunday Star-Times, surmised that age was a much greater factor in the extensive media coverage the case garnered.[42]

In culture[edit]

Comedian Patrice O'Neal joked about the Missing White Woman Syndrome in his Elephant in the Room stand up special.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sommers, Zachary. "Missing White Woman Syndrome and Its Consequences: An Empirical Investigation". Applied Quantitative Methods Workshop. NU Sociology. 
  2. ^ Liebler, Carol M.; John Stewart. "Me(di)a Culpa?: The Missing White Woman Syndrome and Media Self-Critique" (PDF). Communication, Culture & Critique. S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University. 27 (3): 201–216. 
  3. ^ Lundman, R.J. "The newsworthiness and selection bias in news about murder: comparative and relative effects of novelty and race and gender typifications on newspaper coverage of homicide.". Sociological Forum. 18 (3): 357–386. 
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ a b c Cory L. Armstrong (October 2013). Media Disparity: A Gender Battleground. Lexington Books. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-7391-8188-1. 
  7. ^ "Cleveland abductions: Do white victims get more attention?". BBC. May 9, 2013. Retrieved 24 July 2015. Charlton McIlwain, professor New York University: White women occupy a privileged role as violent crime victims in news media reporting. 
  8. ^ Sarah Land Stein, University of Southern Mississippi (2012) THE CULTURAL COMPLEX OF INNOCENCE: AN EXAMINATION OF MEDIA AND SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF MISSING WHITE WOMAN SYNDROME http://aquila.usm.edu/dissertations/858/
  9. ^ Laurie Essig Ph.D. (2014). Racial Politics in the US and the Figure of the White Lady. One way to understand the senseless killings of Black men is through the "lady" https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/social-studies/201412/racial-politics-in-the-us-and-the-figure-the-white-lady
  10. ^ Moody, M., Dorries, B., & Blackwell, H. (2008). The Invisible Damsel: Differences in How National Media Outlets Framed the Coverage of Missing Black and White Women in the Mid-2000s. Conference Papers -- International Communication Association, 1-23. https://www.academia.edu/944503/The_Invisible_Damsel_Differences_in_How_National_Media_Outlets_Framed_the_Coverage_of_Missing_Black_and_White_Women_in_the_Mid-2000s
  11. ^ Cheryl L. Neely (2015). African American Women as Victims of Violence - How do news stories affect our perception of crimes against women from different racial backgrounds? http://www.utne.com/media/african-american-women-victims-of-violence-ze0z1512zdeh
  12. ^ 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. 
  13. ^ Demby, Gene (April 13, 2017). "What We Know (And Don't Know) About 'Missing White Women Syndrome'". NPR. Retrieved May 16, 2017. 
  14. ^ Sommers, Zach (Spring 2016). "Missing White Woman Syndrome: An Empirical Analysis of Race and Gender Disparities in Online News Coverage of Missing Persons". Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology. 106 (2): 275–314. Retrieved May 16, 2017. 
  15. ^ 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. 
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ Krajicek, David. "Damsels in Distress". TruTV.com. p. 3. Retrieved July 7, 2011. 
  18. ^ 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. 
  19. ^ a b Yvonne Jewkes (2004). Media and Crime. London: Sage Publications. pp. 52–53. ISBN 0-7619-4765-5. 
  20. ^ "Met chief accuses media of racism". BBC News. January 26, 2006. 
  21. ^ "The story of two murder victims". BBC News. January 27, 2006. 
  22. ^ "Blair apologises to Soham parents". BBC News. January 27, 2006. 
  23. ^ Fiona Brookman (2005). Understanding Homicide. London: Sage Publications. p. 257. ISBN 0-7619-4755-8. 
  24. ^ 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. 
  25. ^ Davidson, Osha Gray (May 27, 2004). "The Forgotten Soldier". Rolling Stone Magazine. Archived from the original on February 24, 2009. Retrieved July 31, 2007. 
  26. ^ "Testimony of Jessica Lynch" (PDF). House.gov. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 20, 2009. Retrieved February 2, 2009. 
  27. ^ Tips pour in after blonde girl 'without an identity' found in Roma camp in Greece NBC News October 20, 2013
  28. ^ Antonia Blumberg (October 28, 2013), Why the Roma 'Blond Angel' Ignited a Week of Racial Profiling Huffington Post
  29. ^ Ashley Adams (November 8, 2013), Abduction case reveals bias on basis of race Collegiate Times
  30. ^ For the Roma, Fears of kidnapping in Europe Only Mirror Their Own The New York Times October 10, 2013
  31. ^ Associated Press (October 25, 2013). "DNA tests confirm Maria's mother as Bulgarian Sasha Ruseva". Guardian. 
  32. ^ 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. 
  33. ^ a b c Foreman, Tom (March 14, 2006). "Diagnosing 'Missing White Woman Syndrome'". CNN.
  34. ^ "House panel passes 'Dru's Law' in sex offender bill". USA Today. July 27, 2005. Retrieved January 8, 2013. 
  35. ^ Floyd, Jami (July 10, 2008). "Remembering Michelle". CNN.com. Retrieved January 8, 2012. 
  36. ^ George Hunter; Melissa Ann Preddy (October 2009). Limb from Limb. Pinnacle Books. p. 76. ISBN 978-0-7860-2292-2. 
  37. ^ Jones, Ozen (April 21, 2013). "Our shameful hierarchy – some deaths matter more than others". The Independent. Retrieved March 27, 2014. 
  38. ^ a b Barton, Robin L. (August 22, 2011). "The "Missing White Woman Syndrome"". The Crime Report. Retrieved May 17, 2017. 
  39. ^ Laccino, Ludovica (March 20, 2014). "What is 'Missing White Woman Syndrome'? Racism in Media Coverage". International Business Times. Retrieved March 23, 2014. 
  40. ^ "Master of media circus for Madeleine McCann". The Daily Telegraph. April 24, 2008. Retrieved March 27, 2014. 
  41. ^ Majchrowicz, Michael (November 9, 2011). "Beyond the posters: How demographics factored in Spierer, Grubb cases". Indiana Daily Student. 
  42. ^ Hume, Tim (October 18, 2009). "The toddler who united a country". Stuff.co.nz. Retrieved May 15, 2017. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]