The innocent, young, attractive, white woman was missing, and presumably dead, the victim of homicide. Local and national media pounded the story with daily coverage.
This is, of course, the case of Gabby Petito.
The equivalent case of a missing Black woman? Couldn’t find one.
HBO is currently showing a documentary series called “Black and Missing.” It features the founders of the Black and Missing Foundation and makes the basic point that news media and law enforcement pay more attention to missing white people, especially females, than to missing Black people. Sociologists and media often call this Missing White Woman Syndrome.
Research supports this claim. In a 2016 study, a researcher at Northwestern University examined the racial and gender breakdowns in FBI data on missing persons and compared them to representation in news coverage by several media websites. The researcher found significant disproportionality not only in which cases got any coverage at all, but also in “intensity” of coverage. “Missing White Woman Syndrome is a real, empirical phenomenon,” he concluded.
This produces harmful effects. Primarily, it diminishes the value of Black lives and dismisses the anguish of Black families with loved ones who have disappeared. At the same time, it makes young, white women think they are in more potential danger than they actually are based on numbers. There are practical effects, too. No or less media attention means fewer case-related tips from the public and less pressure on law enforcement to devote resources to a case.
Guilty media can claim they’re merely reflecting degree of interest among the public. “Any story that captivates the nation and our readers like this one is front-page worthy,” a spokeswoman for The New York Post said about its prominent and relentless coverage of the Petito case. Of course, like a lot of traditional media and their traditional audience, this is actually a measurement of interest among the white public.
Multiple factors create Missing White Woman Syndrome. Certainly, one of them is a conscious prejudice within some people who attach more social worth to a white life than to a Black life, to a female than to a male, to youth than to age, to the affluent than to the poor, and to physical attractiveness than to plainness.
I’d like to think (but don’t) that this prejudice plays no role in any newsroom’s judgments about missing persons. I believe the main reason the news media go astray is their harmful stereotyping of Black communities – specifically, that crime, runaways and other forms of social dysfunction are so common in these communities that, well, a missing Black person is par for the course and not newsworthy. But when white privilege and other social advantages fail to protect a young, beautiful, white woman, the media see that as a really big deal.
An additional reason the media perpetuate disparities is that they take a lot of cues from social media. And social media – users and companies – love a certain type of female. (My department colleague, Dr. Jess Maddox, pointed this out when UA’s sorority rush exploded on TikTok this year.)
As the Petito case went nationwide, news media published a rash of self-criticism about Missing White Woman Syndrome. Commendable but insufficient for absolution. The real question is whether and how coverage changes.
Because of its glaring distorted prominence, the Petito frenzy did guilt newsrooms and social media posters into spreading word about missing people of other demographics. And some national news media are trying to help beyond the short term. NBC News has a webpage called “Missing in America,” and NexStar’s NewsNation recently started a webpage by the same name. Both show diversity.
But the challenge remains for local news organizations to ensure that in a time of diminished resources and weakened community connections, they are paying attention to all demographics within their locality (a point that, come to think of it, applies to more than just missing person cases). And the challenge remains for national news outlets to make news judgments that are smarter and more ethical than simply parroting the metrics of social media.
Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.
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