(White) Girl Missing: Media’s Construction of the “Missing White Women Syndrome”

[Illustration by Matilde Morri]


“If there’s a missing white woman, you’re going to cover that, every day” words of journalist Gwen Ifill which point to a fundamental issue in editorial work and journalistic news coverage.

An illustrating example of what Ifill is describing could be observed just a little while ago: the tragic case of missing Gabby Petito, an American blogger travelling through the US with her fiancé and later found dead, kept dominating news outlets for weeks – nationwide. Her story came like a bombshell: multiple front-page headlines, a live briefing provided by the New York Times and about a dozen podcasts commenting on her case, eventually creating a huge online-community. “Any story that captivates the nation (…) like this one is front-page worthy,” a New York Post spokeswoman argued and, probably unintentionally, illustrated how fast a crime can turn from information to entertainment.

Cases like Gabby’s – certain names that would fill headlines for weeks – most likely have something in common: they are about white, young girls, having their whole life still ahead. But then there are cases like Britney Tiger or Shemika Cosey, missing minority women who did not get any media attention. Two of many more individuals whose families felt left aside, especially when confronted with the outrage surrounding Gabby’s case.

Since countless people are reported missing at any time, it’s a given that media cannot provide sufficient coverage to each victim in the same way, but race and physical appearance seem to make a difference in the frequency and in the way missing cases are being covered – the “newsworthiness” of cases is likely determined by certain characteristics of the victim. Satirist Jon Stewart picked up on this by creating a “formula” for the likeliness of media coverage on TV:

y (minutes of media coverage) = Family Income x (Abductee Cuteness ÷ Skin Color)2 + Length of Abduction x Media Savvy of Grieving Parents3.

Despite all the sarcasm, there’s a grain of truth in this. As part of a pattern, Gabby’s example shed light on a systematic bias called “Missing White Women Syndrome”.

“Missing White Women Syndrome” and journalistic framing

The description “Missing White Women Syndrome” (MWWS) first originated from above mentioned journalist Gwen Ifill during a conference. As Jada L. Moss noticed , it refers to the “media’s failure to represent and depict missing persons cases in the same proportion that they appear across races”. Even though missing cases of minorities like black and indigenous people often occur at a higher rate, media show a “tunnel-vision-like focus” on cases of white, young females. In addition to race and youthfulness, John Foster pointed out how class, perceived attractiveness, body size and richness of victims play a key role for supposed newsworthiness. According to the Black and Missing Foundation, of the Americans reported missing in 2020, about 60% were white or Hispanic whereas 40% were black. Still, only 7% of minorities received any media coverage. Another study confirmed an overrepresentation of Caucasians: almost 80% of abduction cases featured on CNN involved Caucasians, whereas only about 50% of victims were actually Caucasian.

But the story continues. MWWS does not just refer to the frequency differences of reported missing cases by features such as race. Another part of the problem is the different way in which victims are being framed. For the most part, the ways journalists “frame” their stories set the context of the story for the reader, thereby, shaping public opinion. Consequently, the choice of description can significantly determine public empathy. A report by The Sentencing Project found that media does consistently over-represent racial minorities as crime suspects being in unsafe environments and involved in different kinds of incidents. This can ultimately lead people to feel less empathy for black victims and creates stereotypes of black people as being involved in violence, poverty, addiction. As a consequence, they often get classified as runaways and as being somehow responsible for their own disappearance. On the opposite, white people are more likely portrayed as crime victims living in safe environments, hence their disappearance might come more by surprise.

Searching for answers: A “cultural complex” and “white” newsrooms

An explanation for such a distinctive framing by journalist can partly be found in unconscious processes. In this sense, a concept called the “cultural complex” describes how many western cultures have been overexposed to the blond, Caucasian female as symbol of innocence through art, literature and media. Reznick picked a vivid example in 1989 by pointing to Barbie or Walt Disney movies, which show a strong similarity in the appearance of main female characters.

News framing can moreover be affected by a so-called “white bias”. Although newsroom diversity has increased over the past years, media owners and journalists are still predominantly white. The way journalists have been socialized and educated can lead them to take more likely a white perspective on news events. Considering that stories about individuals similar to oneself are more cognitively appealing, stories similar to the majority are  likely to attract large audiences, which is essential in the fight for public attention.

Who’s the real gatekeeper?

It would be too narrow minded to exclusively hold journalist and media houses accountable for a (racial) bias in news coverage since it is way more convoluted. According to a study about press handling of missing cases, police turn out to be a driving force for media attention of missing cases. Coverage seem to be dependent on the police filing a report about the crime and passing the information on to journalists: “Our policy is, if it doesn’t come from the police, we’re not gonna put it on”, a California policemen stated. With this in mind, the chance for media coverage becomes an interplay of journalistic and policemen’s gatekeeping-behaviour.

Another facet of disparity

Getting the missing persons’ photo out there is a crucial support, especially in times of fast information spread through social media. Long-term, the media can even affect policy making by creating public pressure. In the US, there has been an implementation of legislative bills named after murdered girls, for example Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law or Caylee’s Law.

The excessive news coverage of Gabby Petito did not only shed light on the case itself, but also on the extent to which it was covered. It raised awareness for cases that haven’t been mentioned by the media and, yet again, sparked debates about racial disparities being reflected in the MWWS.

While reporting every missing case seems not feasible, reporting just the statistics seems insufficient, too. How should anyone decide whose loss gets coverage? Taking a closer look at the issue, the choice of “newsworthy” cases is routed in a complex system of aspects like cultural heritage, policework and monetary considerations. One comes to understand that there is not just one guilty party. Ultimately, the MWWS presents another facet of a racial bias. It illustrates that such can often occur in a subtle way like a simple decision or choice of words. Particularly journalists have to be aware of their narrative power within public perception.

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