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Robin L. Barton

The "Missing White Woman Syndrome"

August 22, 2011 04:57:49 pm

According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), there are as many as 100,000 active missing persons cases in the United States at any given time. If you went solely by what you read in the media, you’d probably assume that most of these cases involve pretty white women.

After all,  disappearances like those involving Natalee Holloway, Lauren Spierer and Holly Bobo  get splashed across the headlines and are the focus of morning talk and true crime shows. But do the statistics support this perception?

The FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) breaks down the 2010 missing person statistics by age, sex and race.

Age

The NCIC database indicates that of the 692,944 people reported missing in 2010, 531,928 were under age 18. Most people would agree that it’s reasonable and appropriate for cases of missing children to get a lot of press. Children are vulnerable and innocent. And such cases are every parent’s worst nightmare.

In addition, the Amber Alert system is specifically designed to use the media and other resources to get word out quickly when a child has gone missing in order to increase the odds of their safe return.

But  all missing children cases aren’t treated the same. As they do in cases involving missing women, the media seems to pay more attention to missing white girls. Caylee Anthony is a good example.

And this pattern isn’t limited to the U.S., either. Case in point: the world-wide coverage of the disappearance of British toddler Madeleine McCann in Portugal.

Sex

According to the NCIC statistics, 355,243 women were reported missing in 2010,  compared to 337,660 men. But the slight edge that women have in the numbers doesn’t seem to justify the barrage of coverage their cases get at the expense of all those missing men.

Think about it: when was the last time you saw extensive media coverage of the disappearance of a man?

Some have explained the media’s focus on missing women by pointing to society’s apparent obsession with “damsels in distress.”

People are riveted by cases in which a young beautiful—often blonde—girl has apparently been abducted by an evil-doer and is in need of rescue.

Race

Besides sex, race is the biggest factor in determining how much interest journalists seem to show in a missing persons case.

It’s difficult to tell from the NCIC statistics exactly how many white women were reported missing in 2010, because the database lumps white and Hispanic missing persons together (418,859) and doesn’t break down the race information by gender.

But journalists certainly act as if cases of missing white people, especially women, merit extensive coverage. There’s even a name for the phenomenon: the missing white woman syndrome.

As Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post eloquently explained, “The specifics of the story line vary from damsel to damsel. In some cases, the saga begins with the discovery of a corpse. In other cases, the damsel simply vanishes into thin air.

“Often, there is a suspect from the beginning—an intruder, a husband, a father, a congressman, a stranger glimpsed lurking nearby. Sometimes the tale ends well, or well enough…[b]ut more often, it ends badly. But of course the damsels have much in common besides being female…A damsel must be white.”

For example, the disappearance of pregnant Laci Peterson was a huge news story. In contrast, a pregnant black woman named LaToyia Figueroa who disappeared was barely a blip in the national media, despite efforts by her family to enlist journalists’ help in finding her. (Like Peterson, Figueroa was later found murdered.)

Why the Disparity in Coverage?

Several reasons have been posited for the disparate attention of the media—both mainstream and tabloid—on missing white women. The most basic and obvious reason is because it pays.

Kevin Drum reported,  “According to a cable news employee who was willing to state the obvious on an anonymous basis, ‘We showcase missing, young, white, attractive women because our research shows we get more viewers. It’s about beating the competition and ad dollars.’”

Kristal Brent Zook, a professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism, has said that many consider women more sympathetic potential victims than men—and white women even more so.  “Who’s appealing? Who’s sexy?,” observed  Zook. “ The virginal, pure, blond princess is missing…It has a lot to do with class and sexuality and ageism, not just race.”

According to another theory,  there’s an unconscious bias in newsrooms that leads journalists to assume that men or members of a minority group go missing all the time and usually because of their involvement in some sort of criminal activity.

Thus, journalists may not see missing men or African-American women as victims in the same way they see missing white women.

This bias could be corrected if newsrooms were more diverse, some argue. “The more diverse our work forces are and newsrooms are, the greater the chances our stories will truly reflect our communities,” says Dan Shelley, former chairman of the Radio Television Digital News Association.

A 2005 article  in the Los Angeles Times on the coverage of the Natalee Holloway disappearance claimed  that news directors have become more conscious of slanted  reporting as criticism of the disparity of missing persons coverage has grown.

But six years later, such coverage doesn’t seem to have changed at all.

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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