The Missing White Girl Syndrome

A sad, frustrating truth that has come up in my research fairly often is that how much public attention a missing persons case will get is often determined by how sympathetic the missing person comes across. In our problematic culture young, white girls get far more media concern than other types of missing persons cases.

There’s legitimate cause for concern when children in particular go missing – they have an increased risk of being abducted and they may not be able to look after their own needs. But these concerns are valid for all children, regardless of race and gender.

The statistics are pretty damning. In 2005, in the US, it was found that white children account for about half of all missing children, yet, as Thomas Hargrove and Ansley Haman report:

White children were the subjects of more than two-thirds of the dispatches appearing on the Associated Press’ national wire during the last five years and for three-quarters of missing-children coverage on CNN.

Talking about the UK, Joy Goh-Mah wrote for the Telegraph in 2013 that:

If asked about cases of missing children, most will be aware only of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007, despite a child being reported missing every 3 minutes. While her disappearance is no doubt a huge tragedy, we have to wonder why it is Madeleine McCann, a pretty white girl, who has captured the sympathy of the public, and not girls with names like Aamina Khan, Elizabeth Ogungbayibi, or Folawiyo Oladejo, all of whom are listed on Missing Kids UK.

Although the phenomenon is not as well-studied in the context of Australian and Canadian Aboriginal children, it has been found that in both countries young Aboriginal women are at an increased risk of going missing than their white peers, and yet, their cases rarely yield any attention – both from the police and from media. This is despite the fact that many of these cases are suspicious and Aboriginal women in both countries are far more likely than the average population (in Canada, they are seven times more likely) to be victims of murder.

And the phenomenon has been addressed earlier this year by criminologists Michelle N. Jeanis and Ráchael A. Powers who found that there was disproportionate coverage of missing persons incidents where there was a female victim (women and girl victims were 12 times more likely to receive media attention than male victims); where a child had been abducted by a stranger (most child abduction cases are perpetrated by someone the child knows, such as a parent); and where the victim was white (they were three times more likely to receive media attention than when the victim was a person of colour). More coverage was also given to missing persons with a higher socioeconomic status and a lower age. The increased media coverage both manifested itself in a greater number of articles published/news bulletins on the subject as well as a longer length of coverage.

There are a range of reasons why this happens. The first is the lack of diversity across newsrooms. According to the Journalism Centre on Children and Families, only 13% of American newsroom staff (across both newspapers and TV programs) belong to a racial minority group, which is a massive underrepresentation. Bias fostered in a homogenous workplace – unconscious or otherwise – may be part of the reason for the disparity in coverage.

But there’s more to it. Commentators are asking deeper questions about public perceptions of who can be seen as a legitimate victim deserving of concern. Often this is a racist, sexist, ageist calculation of who fits the model of a “damsel in distress”. Journalism academic Sarah Stillman noted in 2007:

Each day, the mainstream media provide audiences with a subtle instruction manual for how to empathise with certain endangered women’s bodies, while overlooking others. These messages are powerful: they position certain sub-groups of women – often white, wealthy, and conventionally attractive – as deserving of our collective resources, while making the marginalisation and victimisation of other groups of women, such as low-income women of colour, seem natural.

As Chimene Suleyman argues on The Independent, so little in the way of diverse stories exist in public consciousness that it is a real challenge for the mainstream to find cases of missing children of colour relateable. They don’t empathise with these cases as easily as they would empathise with cases of missing white child. They don’t connect to the idea that the missing child could be their child, or relative. She writes:

The faces of white, middle class men and women have been plastered across our screens and magazines for so long that even in death or when missing it is a blonde, light-eyed face we expect to see.

To truly understand why, you would first have to see that news and fiction are born of the same setting, certainly in terms of the systematic racism that feeds into characterisation. Think of the black characters you have watched in films and television shows over the decades — heavy-chained, low-slung-trousered shooters and criminals. Think of the Arabs — baying for Western blood, with their suspicious packages and guns firing into the air.

Then bring to mind love stories, tales of humour, of ambitious success, and friendship. Remember that the actors and their characters are well-spoken and white. It is a narrative we have become accustomed to, one from which even the news won’t stray.

The multi-year coverage of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance was often cinematic in its reporting, told to us in every step as though an enthralling and gripping thriller. Such fascination and importance has never been given to the Trang Nguyens or Hafsa Tarambis of this world. How can the public empathise with children like this when they have been faceless all their lives?

Race and gender aren’t the only factors which make some cases more sympathetic than others. Jeanis and Powers, for instance, discuss how a woman’s actions before her disappearance may factor into the calculation of whether her story is “newsworthy”. If the victim is a sex worker, if they have a previous criminal record, if they were out alone at night, or have substance abuse issues, then the study found that they were more likely to be “blamed” for their disappearance. If they got media coverage, it was likely to act as a cautionary tale designed to instruct women viewers on how to avoid becoming a victim of crime themselves.

Victims who get sympathetic coverage are angelic, faultless, pretty. It’s hard for any real person to fit that mould. Often, it’s especially hard if racial and gender stereotypes work against you. President of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, Dori Maynard suggests in the video below that internalised racism can make people think that a child has become a victim of crime as a result of the nature of the community they’re in. It’s less read as a tragedy as an inevitability. But every case of a missing child is tragic. And so is the prejudice that underlies the thought that some missing children cases are more newsworthy than others.

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