Missing White Woman Syndrome

Gabby Petito. Elizabeth Smart. Amber Hagerman. Diana Quer. Grace Milane. Sarah Everard. Chances are you will recognize one of these names. Lauren Cho. Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. Ashley Loring Heavyrunner. Manuela Chavero. Evelyn Hernandez. Alexis Patterson. Chances are you will not recognize any of these names. Why? There is a phenomenon which occurs in the media where white, affluent girls who go missing are given significantly more coverage by the media than those who are not white and affluent. This phenomenon has been dubbed “Missing White Woman Syndrome.”

Why aren’t these women getting the same media coverage as their white counterparts? One argument is that it comes down to money. “An anonymous news reporter said it best: ‘We showcase missing, young, White, attractive women because our research shows we get more viewers, [and] it is about beating the competition and [garnering] ad dollars’ (MacKinnon, 2005, para. 9). Put differently, the media still view White women and girls as ideal victims” (Christie, 1986).[1] Additionally, the audience for true crime is mostly white women, and they are hungry for stories about people who they see as similar to themselves.

Giving equal coverage to all people who are abducted is important because it can help them be found faster. One study found that “non-black children are indeed significantly more likely to receive coverage than non-white children.”[2] The lack of media coverage for black children harms them as they remain on average missing longer than non-black children.[3] In the case of Gabby Petito, the massive media circus around her disappearance led to more tips from people and helped the police find her remains more quickly. “The people who saw the van—there was another couple who passed the parked white van that belonged to Gabby Petito and recorded it, inadvertently, on a video. And then they saw some media coverage about her case, and they were, like, ‘Oh, my God, we saw that van.’ They went to law enforcement, and her body was found nearby.”[4] Similarly, in the case of Elizabeth Smart, she was found because of people recognizing her from news reports.[5] The media allows for more people to not only be aware of the kidnapping but to be on the lookout for the victim and perpetrators which can lead to those people being found sooner.

It is also important to provide equal coverage as providing equal coverage to women can change laws. Amber alerts were implemented after Amber Hagerman was abducted as a way to help the police find people faster.[6] Megan’s law is another law that came about because of the media coverage of Megan Kanka, a seven-year-old who was raped and murdered by her next door neighbor who was a registered sex offender. Megan’s law requires the Department of Justice to notify the public of registered sex offenders. These laws were enacted in large part due to the media attention given to the cases of these white girl victims.

So, what can we do to help with this problem? The biggest thing we can do individually and collectively is show interest in the cases of missing minority women and children, not just white women and children. We need to make it more profitable for these media outlets to tell the stories of all women in order for them to tell the stories that normally are put aside in favor of  “Missing White Woman Syndrome.”. Keep clicking on those articles and reposting on social media for cases involving underrepresented women to make your voices heard.

-C.M.


[1]Slakoff, Danielle C., and Henry F. Fradella. “Media Messages Surrounding Missing Women and Girls: The ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ and Other Factors That Influence Newsworthiness: Published in Criminology, Criminal Justice, Law & Society.” Criminology, Criminal Justice, Law & Society, Western Society of Criminology, 1 Dec. 2019, https://ccjls.scholasticahq.com/article/11134-media-messages-surrounding-missing-women-and-girls-the-missing-white-woman-syndrome-and-other-factors-that-influence-newsworthiness.

[2] van de Rijt, Arnout et al. “Racial and gender differences in missing children’s recovery chances.” PloS one vol. 13,12 e0207742. 31 Dec. 2018, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0207742

[3] van de Rijt, Arnout et al. “Racial and gender differences in missing children’s recovery chances.” PloS one vol. 13,12 e0207742. 31 Dec. 2018, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0207742

[4] Rosner, Helen. “The Long American History of ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome.’” The New Yorker, 8 Oct. 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/the-long-american-history-of-missing-white-woman-syndrome.

[5] “Police Recover Elizabeth Smart and Arrest Her Abductors.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 13 Nov. 2009, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/police-recover-elizabeth-smart-and-arrest-her-abductors.

[6] “About Amber Alert.” AMBER Advocate, 4 Aug. 2021, https://www.amberadvocate.org/about/.

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