Missing white woman syndrome
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Missing white woman syndrome is a term used by social scientists and media commentators to refer to extensive media coverage, especially in television, of missing person cases involving young, white, upper-middle-class women or girls. The term is used to describe the Western media's undue focus on upper-middle-class white women who disappear, with the degree of coverage they receive being compared to cases of missing women of color, women of lower social classes and missing men or boys. Although the term was coined to describe disproportionate coverage of missing person cases, it is sometimes used to describe similar disparities in news coverage of other violent crimes. Instances have been cited in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and South Africa.
PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill is said to be the originator of the phrase. Charlton McIlwain defines the syndrome as white women 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. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva categorizes the racial component of missing white woman syndrome as a form of racial grammar, through which white supremacy is normalized by implicit or even invisible standards.
Missing white woman syndrome has led to a number of right-wing tough on crime measures that were named for white women who disappeared and were subsequently found harmed. 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. News coverage of missing black women was more likely to focus on the victim's problems, such as abusive boyfriends or a troubled past, while coverage of white women tends to focus on their roles as mothers or daughters.
A study of news coverage of missing children found that African American missing children cases were significantly underrepresented when compared to national statistics. Female missing children were significantly underrepresented in national news reporting. The coverage of death cases for African American boys was significantly greater than expected. Coverage of non-African American female kidnapping cases was greater than expected. 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.
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. In the same study, professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva theorised that the subtle standard of placing a premium on white lives in the news helps to maintain and reinforce a racial hierarchy with whites at the top. For example, black women are members of both a marginalized racial group and a marginalized gender group. Crucially, though, black women have an "intersectional experience [that] is greater than the sum of racism and sexism". In other words, like white women, black women are subject to sexism, but the form of that sexism differs for black women because of the compounding effects of racial discrimination; with missing white woman syndrome being a pertinent manifestation of this social phenomenon. Some sociologists have argued that the tone of media coverage for black female victims differs markedly from coverage of white female victims in that the former are more likely to be blamed for purportedly putting themselves in harm's way, either knowingly or unknowingly. Victim blaming in this context reinforces the notion that black female victims are not only less innocent, but also less worthy of rescue relative to white women. Other observers note the lack of publicity given to black female victims of police brutality in news coverage, attributing the silence to a tradition of "sexism and patriarchy" in American society.
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 disappeared in 2002 and 2005 respectively, and LaToyia Figueroa, a pregnant Black Hispanic woman. Figueroa disappeared in Philadelphia the same year Holloway disappeared. Figueroa and her unborn daughter were found murdered. 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.
In a 2016 Esquire article about the disappearance of Tiffany Whitton, journalist Tom Junod observed that white women of lower social status such as Whitton, a 26-year-old unemployed drug addict who was on parole, do not get much media attention as "media outlets are ruthlessly selective, and they tend to prefer women who are white, pretty, and, above all, innocent." Whitton's mother stated that producers of shows like Nancy Grace told her they weren't interested in her daughter's case. Dr. Cory L. Armstrong wrote in The Washington Post, "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."
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".
In January 2006, the (London) Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair accused the media of ‘institutional racism’ in its reporting of murders. He contrasted the reporting of the death of the male white lawyer Tom ap Rhys Price with the murder of the male Asian builders’ merchant Balbir Matharu. He said ‘murders in minority communities do not seem to interest the mainstream media’. He said that the death of Damilola Taylor (a 10-year-old black boy) was clearly an exception to this. He said he had been surprised at how much coverage the murders of two 10-year-old white girls in Soham had received. He did not mention any white women.
University of Leicester Criminology Professor Yvonne Jewkes cites the murder of Milly 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. She writes that, in contrast, the killing of Damilola Taylor, a 10-year-old boy from Nigeria, initially received little news coverage, with reports initially concentrating upon street crime levels and community policing in London, 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". However, according to the BBC, the killing of Damilola Taylor had shocked the UK.
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 (both were white). 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. Another explanation for the difference in the coverage has been given: the eroticisation of the victim by news reports about a sexual relationship between Jones and her murderer (who was her uncle).
Sandile Memela, chief director for social cohesion at South Africa's Department of Arts and Culture, noted amidst the Oscar Pistorius trial that there existed substantial differences between how media outlets reported on the murders of Reeva Steenkamp and Zanele Khumalo; two South African models, respectively white and black, who had been murdered by their boyfriends under nearly identical circumstances. Memela asserted that the discrepancy between the media coverage of the Steenkamp and Khumala murders amounted to "structural racism" within South African society, and stated: "As a country we seem to have chosen to ignore the agony, pain and suffering of the Khumalo family for no other reason than that they are black."
On September 11, 2014, the South African news network SABC3 aired an investigative report which raised concerns around the "Missing White Woman Syndrome"; where the death of Steenkamp was juxtaposed with the death of Zanele Khumalo.
Other alleged cases of disproportionate media interest
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.
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.
Presumed kidnapping of "blonde angel" in Greece
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." The child was later identified as Maria Ruseva. Her biological mother was a Bulgarian Roma who gave Maria up for adoption.
Murder trial defendants
Critics have also cited excessive media coverage of murder trials where the defendant is female, white, young and attractive, and included them along with Missing White Woman Syndrome instances in an all-encompassing narrative nicknamed the "woman in jeopardy" or "damsel in distress" genre. In such cases, the media will focus on the accused, rather than the victim as in Missing White Woman Syndrome cases, and they will be more ambiguous about their guilt than in other criminal cases regardless of evidence. Cited examples include Amanda Knox, Jodi Arias and Casey Anthony.
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.
|January 30, 1889||Mary Vetsera||A 17-year-old new noblewoman murdered by her lover, 30-year-old Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria.|||
|July 19, 1889||Elvira Madigan||A 21-year-old Danish circus performer killed after eloping with her married, 34-year-old Swedish aristocrat lover.|||
|January 15, 1947||Elizabeth Short||A 23-year-old woman found dismembered and mutilated in Los Angeles.|||
|June 10, 1991||Jaycee Dugard||An 11-year-old girl abducted from the street and held in captivity for 18 years.|||
|February 27, 1992||Kimberly Pandelios||A 20-year-old woman who disappeared after leaving to respond to a model-wanted ad at the Angeles National Forest. The case was publicized in a 1995 episode of Unsolved Mysteries.|||
|September 24, 1992||Dail Dinwiddie||A 23-year-old college student who disappeared after attending a U2 concert. She remains missing.|||
|October 1, 1993||Polly Klaas||A 12-year-old girl who was found murdered. Her murderer was convicted and sentenced to death.|||
|July 29, 1994||Megan Kanka||A 7-year-old girl abducted and murdered by her neighbor, Jesse Timmendequas. The case led to the introduction of "Megan's Law", which requires law enforcement to disclose details relating to the location of registered sex offenders.|||
|November 16, 1995||Linda Sobek||A 27-year-old model and former Los Angeles Raiders cheerleader who disappeared while on assignment. Salacious details of the case were printed in the national media. Her murderer was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.|||
|January 13, 1996||Amber Hagerman||A nine-year-old girl abducted and murdered after being held in captivity for two days. Her case prompted the implementation of the AMBER Alert system in the United States.|||
|December 25, 1996||JonBenét Ramsey||A 6-year-old girl who was killed in her family's home.|||
|June 23, 1997||Kristen Modafferi||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.|||
|August 31, 1997||Diana Spencer||A 36-year-old member of the British Royal Family because of her former marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales. Her death in a car accident was the subject of extensive media attention, public mourning, investigations and conspiracy theories.|||
|June 27, 2000||Molly Bish||A 16-year-old girl who disappeared after being dropped off at her lifeguarding job. Her remains were not found for three years, despite extensive searching and publicity.|||
|July 1, 2000||Sarah Payne||An 8-year-old girl who was abducted from a cornfield while playing with her siblings. Her death led to the government allowing limited access to the sex offender registry.|||
|June 18, 2001||Danielle Jones||A 15-year-old girl murdered by her uncle; her body has never been recovered.|||
|May 1, 2001||Chandra Levy||A 24-year-old intern disappeared while she had an affair with married representative Gary Condit.|||
|January 10, 2002||Rachel Cooke||A 19-year-old college student who disappeared while jogging. Her disappearance was publicized nationally, but she is still missing.|||
|February 1, 2002||Danielle van Dam||A 7-year-old girl who disappeared from her bedroom.|||
|March 21, 2002||Amanda "Milly" Dowler||A 13-year-old girl who disappeared after school. Her remains were found after an extensive six-month search, and the case played a significant role in the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.|||
|June 5, 2002||Elizabeth Smart||A 14-year-old girl, missing for 9 months after being in captivity. Her captor was sentenced to life in prison.|||
|August 4, 2002||Jessica Chapman||Two 10-year-old girls murdered while returning from a shopping trip.|||
|August 29, 2002||Audrey Herron||A 31-year-old woman and mother of three who disappeared after leaving work.|||
|December 24, 2002||Laci Peterson||A 27-year-old pregnant woman murdered by her husband. The case led to the implementation of "Laci and Connor's Law", which defines violence against a pregnant woman as violence against two separate legal subjects (the mother and the unborn child).|||
|March 23, 2003||Jessica Lynch||A 19-year-old Private First Class injured and taken prisoner at the Battle of Nasiriyah.|||
|November 22, 2003||Dru Sjodin||A 22-year-old student who was found murdered. Her murderer was convicted, and the case prompted the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Registry.|||
|February 1, 2004||Carlie Brucia||An 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped from a car wash and later murdered. The surveillance video showing the kidnapping gained nationwide attention.|||
|March 27, 2004||Audrey Seiler||A 20-year-old college student who was found alive after an extensive search; it was later revealed she had fabricated the incident.|||
|May 24, 2004||Brooke Wilberger||A 19-year-old student who was abducted and murdered. Her murderer revealed the location of her body and was convicted.|||
|July 19, 2004||Lori Hacking||A 27-year-old woman murdered by her husband.|||
|February 24, 2005||Jessica Lunsford||A 9-year-old girl abducted from her home and later murdered. Her death led to more restrictive monitoring of sex offenders, known as Jessica's Law.|||
|April 26, 2005||Jennifer Wilbanks||A 32-year-old woman who fabricated her disappearance to avoid marriage.|||
|May 30, 2005||Natalee Holloway||An 18-year-old high school senior who disappeared in Aruba and remains missing. She was declared legally dead on January 12, 2012.|||
|September 5, 2005||Taylor Behl||A 17-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University freshman who disappeared and was later found dead. Her murderer was convicted.|||
|October 7, 2006||Michelle Gardner-Quinn||A 21-year-old undergraduate at the University of Vermont who disappeared and was later found dead. Her murderer was convicted.|||
|February 9, 2007||Tara Grant||A 35-year-old woman murdered by her husband.|||
|May 3, 2007||Madeleine McCann||A 3-year-old girl who disappeared from her parents' hotel room during a family holiday in Portugal. Described by The Daily Telegraph as "the most heavily reported missing-person case in modern history".|||
|June 16, 2008||Caylee Anthony||A 2-year-old girl reported missing by her grandmother after 31 days.|||
|February 9, 2009||Haleigh Cummings||A 5-year-old girl kidnapped from her father's trailer in Satsuma, Florida.|||
|October 5, 2009||Aisling Symes||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. Tim Hulme, writing for The Sunday Star-Times, surmised that age was a much greater factor than race or class in the extensive media coverage the case garnered.|||
|April 13, 2011||Holly Bobo||A 20-year-old nursing student who disappeared from her home in Darden, Tennessee. Her remains were found in September 2014. Two men have been charged with her murder and kidnapping.|||
|June 3, 2011||Lauren Spierer||A 20-year-old Indiana University student who disappeared after a night of drinking. She remains missing.|||
|August 3, 2013||Hannah Anderson||A 16-year-old California high school student who was kidnapped by a family friend after cheerleading practice. She was found in Idaho after a weeklong national search.|||
|September 13, 2014||Hannah Graham||An 18-year-old University of Virginia student who was kidnapped and murdered by an acquaintance. Her remains were found approximately five weeks after her disappearance.|||
|August 22, 2016||Diana Quer||An 18-year-old girl from a wealthy Madrid family who disappeared while vacationing in A Pobra do Caramiñal, Galicia.|||
|July 16, 2018||Mollie Tibbetts||20-year-old who disappeared while jogging near her home in Brooklyn, Iowa. Her body was discovered over a month later on August 21.|||
|October 15, 2018||Jayme Closs||A 13-year-old girl was abducted from the Barron, Wisconsin home of her parents, both of whom were killed during the incident. She escaped her captor 88 days later.|||
|December 1, 2018||Grace Millane||A 22-year-old British tourist from a wealthy family who disappeared while visiting New Zealand. Her body was discovered in a rural area of Auckland just over one week after she went missing. A man was subsequently convicted of her murder.|||
Contemporary cases claimed not to have received comparable attention
The following missing person cases have been expressly compared to contemporary missing person cases labeled as examples of "Missing White Woman Syndrome", in order to highlight differences in coverage between them. The date of death or disappearance is given in parentheses.
|Date||Name||Description||Case contrasted with||Source(s)|
|Unknown||Srey Nath||A 15-year-old Cambodian student lured to Thailand with a job offer and enslaved in a Malaysian brothel. After escaping with three other girls and reporting to police, she was jailed for a year for illegal immigration and subsequently deported to Thailand, where she was sold to another brothel.||Jaycee Dugard|||
|1993 - ongoing||Female homicides in Ciudad Juárez||Over 800 violent deaths of women and girls in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez.||Natalee Holloway|||
|November 27, 2000||Damilola Taylor||A 10-year-old Nigerian boy who was stabbed by a random attacker in London and died from blood loss while being driven to a hospital. The coverage centered on the general safety of the area and largely ignored the victim.||Sarah Payne|||
|April 1, 2001||Hannah Williams||A 14-year-old London working-class girl with a history of running away from home, who disappeared during a shopping trip. Her body was discovered a year later during the search for a middle-class missing girl, Danielle Jones, and most of the (scarce) coverage Williams received was early speculation about the possibility of her body being Jones's.||Danielle Jones|||
|May 3, 2002||Alexis Patterson||A 7-year-old African-American girl who disappeared after being dropped off at her Milwaukee, Wisconsin elementary school. No trace of Alexis has ever been found.||Elizabeth Smart|||
|July 24, 2002||Evelyn Hernandez||A 24-year-old, almost nine months pregnant Salvadoran immigrant and her American 6-year-old son, who went missing in San Francisco. Evelyn's torso was found in the San Francisco Bay three months later, while Alex remains missing.||Laci Peterson|||
|March 23, 2003||Lori Piestewa||A 23-year-old United States Army soldier, of Hopi descent and a single mother, killed at the Battle of Nasiriyah.||Jessica Lynch|||
|Shoshana Johnson||A 30-year-old United States Army specialist, of Afro-Panamanian descent and a single mother, injured and taken prisoner at the Battle of Nasiriyah.|
|February 25, 2005||Donna Cooke||A 23-year-old prostitute found strangled in Lake Thonotosassa during the search for Jessica Lunsford. Coverage of the then unidentified woman was reduced to the Sheriff reassuring viewers, "it is not our girl" (meaning Lunsford), which was denounced as "dehumanizing" by critics. Cooke's murder remains unsolved.||Jessica Lunsford|||
|July 18, 2005||Latoyia Figueroa||A 24-year-old, five months pregnant Afrolatina waitress (and already a single mother) who disappeared in Philadelphia after leaving a prenatal care session. Her remains were discovered in Chester, Pennsylvania one month later.||Natalee Holloway|||
|March 10, 2007||Yéremi Vargas||A poor 7-year-old boy who disappeared while playing in a vacant lot of Vecindario, Gran Canaria. The disappearance had little repercusion for the first five years. Antonio Ojeda, a pedophile incarcerated for abusing another child, was named the main suspect in 2016.||Madeleine McCann|||
|January 8, 2009||Oscar Garcia-Calles||Two Salvadoran brothers aged 16 and 14 who disappeared while traveling to Green Brook, New Jersey. Possibly abducted by an unrelated adult male.||Danielle van Dam|||
|Samuel Garcia-Calles||Jessica Lunsford|
|April 29, 2009||Shalomiel Solel||A 3-year-old African-American boy abducted by his non-custodial parents from Carson, California. Found undernourished and living on the streets with his parents in New Orleans, on March 2011.||Caylee Anthony|||
|October 1, 2009||Srikanth Rayadurgam||A 23-year-old Indian student disappeared in Auckland, New Zealand. Rayadurgam's family denounced that a Wellington team originally assigned to investigate his disappearance was redirected in short notice to Henderson in order to assist on the search of 2-year-old Aisling Symes.||Aisling Symes|||
|May 30, 2010||Stephany Flores||A 21-year-old Peruvian business student murdered in a hotel room by Joran van der Sloot, the main suspect of the Natalee Holloway case.||Natalee Holloway|||
|July 5, 2016||Manuela Chavero||A 42-year-old woman who disappeared in the early morning from her home in Monesterio, Extremadura; she left the TV on, her cell phone in the kitchen, and her pants on the bed.||Diana Quer|||
|August 25, 2016||Iván Durán||A 30-year-old man from Baiona, Galicia, disappeared 3 days after Diana Quer.|
- Attention inequality
- Damsel in distress
- Institutional racism
- Media bias
- Missing and murdered Indigenous women
- Racial hierarchy
- White privilege
- White supremacy
- Male expendability
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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.
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Charlton McIlwain, professor New York University: White women occupy a privileged role as violent crime victims in news media reporting.
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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.
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