Think about the last news coverage you’ve seen of a missing person or even missing persons cases you’ve heard of. Who was the person who went missing? How much were they reported? Were they white? Upper-middle-class? Chances are, they were. And if they weren’t, congratulations, you may have been watching a news channel that is immune to “missing white woman syndrome.”
“Missing white woman syndrome” is a phenomenon where missing white, upper-middle-class women get significantly more media coverage than missing people in different groups. Compared to women of color, women from lower classes, and men or boys, white women enjoy the privilege of extensive media coverage when they go missing.
But why does this happen? According to NPR, sociologist Zach Sommers at Northwestern University found that white people are more often covered as the victims of crimes in the news. After researching every missing persons case covered by a select group of national and local news outlets in 2013, he concluded that missing white women received more coverage than other groups.
When talking about the Cleveland kidnappings of Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Georgina DeJesus, Sommers mentioned that the case probably received as much coverage as it did because two of the girls were white. Had the girls all been Latina like DeJesus, Sommers proposed that the coverage probably wouldn’t have been as persistent and widespread as it was.
Sommers also proposed the idea that it is easier for people to see women as victims, and when people think about how race plays into seeing people as victims, more issues arise.
This issue is harmful for all groups involved. For one, the pattern paints white women as helpless, almost creating a real-life damsel-in-distress trope. It’s easier to see white women as victims because the public is already used to it from seeing it in TV shows, movies, and books. While many kidnappings cannot be helped and are not the fault of the victim, the pattern of more coverage of white women feed into the idea that they are helpless damsels, rather than independent agents of their own free will.
But most importantly, everyone deserves the same amount of publicity and attention regardless of gender and race. Publicity for missing persons often helps the case, as it allows people to be on the lookout for the victims, or scare the perpetrator into confessing. Whether it be a case of a runaway or a kidnapping, is vital that everyone get the media coverage they deserve since it could be a matter of life or death.
A few years ago, the hashtag #MissingDCGirls was trending on Twitter to raise awareness for a handful of black teenage girls who had gone missing in Washington D.C. This was a significant time in which many people became aware of the disproportionate news coverage in accordance to race.
You may have heard of Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Lee Dugard, or Natalee Holloway. But have you heard of Osharna Pittman, Keyara Edwards, or Anjel Burl?
Osharna Pittman was found safe not long after she went missing in 2016. Keyara Edwards was last seen in Northeast Washington, Washington DC on March 28, 2019. No further information is provided, so it is assumed that Edwards is still missing at the time of writing. Anjel Burl was found safe about two weeks after she went missing.
A more recent case local to Pennsylvania is Shalynn Anderson, a 16-year old and is from Brownsville in Fayette County. Anderson was last seen on October 12th, 2019 with an unknown male. Police have concluded that the male’s name as Miles Johnson, who is often seen in Carrick, Pennsylvania. Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Anderson or the man she was with is asked to call State Police Belle Vernon at (724)-929-6262.
When the media fails to report cases fairly, it is important to do your own research and stay informed. One useful resource is the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s search engine, which allows you to search the organization’s records of missing persons’ cases, by criteria of the missing child or the abductor. Another great organization is NamUs, which aims to resolve cold cases by matching information of missing people with past cases that have gone unsolved.
It is important to be aware of this bias in the news media. Knowledge of this imbalance can help to solve the issue, but action is more important. So for every case of a missing white woman you see on the news, use the resources above to look up one missing man or boy, one person of a lower class, and one person of color. Equality in public awareness is vital to get these people the justice they deserve.