The Traumatic Effects of Missing White Woman Syndrome
The media is ruthlessly selective. Coined in 2004 by news anchor Gwen Ifill, the term “missing white woman syndrome” is now regularly used to draw attention to the disproportionate media coverage of missing persons cases. The phenomenon first came to attention in 2003 when the San Francisco Chronicle published an article describing the disparities between the coverage of two missing women’s cases, white woman Laci Peterson and Hispanic woman Evelyn Hernandez, both two disappeared in 2002.
Both Peterson and Hernandez were heavily pregnant and disappeared just seven months apart. The difference? The adorable and eccentric Laci Peterson received international media coverage with her high-profile case, but single mother and legal immigrant Evelyn Hernandez was left behind, forgotten, as her case went unsolved. .
The story of two murders has sparked a needed conversation about media bias against white women. Still used as an example today, these two cases are only the beginning of an undisputed history of the missing white woman syndrome.
The damsel in distress
Young, white, attractive and innocent; this is the criterion for sufficient media coverage of missing persons cases. Sociologist at Northwestern University, Zach Sommers explained the polarity of white and POC cases in a study published in 2016, he speculated that tens of thousands of Americans are reported missing each year, but only a fraction of this number receives notable media coverage. This sparks a conversation about whether certain characteristics lead to denser media coverage, namely white women. Sommers continues to study the MMWWS phenomenon through FBI data and data from four US media outlets.
A 2010 Min and Feaster study of missing children concluded that black children are statistically missing for longer periods of time than white children. It’s likely due to the coverage and vitality associated with missing white children. But children of color still tend to get more media attention than black women and men, due to the sense of tragedy society associates with the loss of young children. In 2015, this study was re-examined and confirmed that coverage of missing POCs was still disproportionate five years later.
The silent genocide of Indigenous women in North America continues every day, yet there is an immense failure to cover the status of women who suffer.
Indigenous women are a minority group targeted by human traffickers, murderers, etc. Not only are Indigenous women disappearing daily from reserves and towns, but they are also not receiving the coverage that could help them get home. Often, once it is too late and their bodies are found, they still do not receive sufficient coverage, leaving many Canadians unaware of this ongoing genocide.
According to a 2008 Canadian study published in The Law and Society Association, Indigenous women receive 27 times less media coverage than white women; according to the article, they also receive “dispassionate and less detailed titles, articles and images”. Another study published by the Wyoming Indian Health Institute in 2020 by Emily A. Grant found that media coverage of Indigenous peoples and people of color was significantly lower than coverage of missing white people based on a coverage assessment. media between 2011 and 2020, when 710 Indigenous women went missing. These disparities are representative of another way we have failed North America’s POC.
A racial hierarchy is built on the basis that some ethnic groups are superior to others. This system of stratification has historically been implemented in societies, and belief systems of racial hierarchy are still prevalent today.
The Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany are a historically instituted example of this system. Simply put, the Nuremberg Laws were anti-Semitic laws created in 1935 to “protect German blood and honor”, these laws prohibited interracial marriage with Jews, employment of Jews, etc. being at the bottom, and blacks and Roma being somewhere in the middle.
Arguably, such a racial hierarchy is still present in American society today, even if not instituted, this rather historically present social belief can make itself known through the media. Black women are a double minority group, being people of color, as well as women, they are underrepresented and more likely to face these challenges systemically and in their daily lives. In addition to greater media coverage, white women receive more intensive coverage. When a white woman goes missing, photos of her fill our media feeds for days, if not weeks. This is why MWWS is another example of white privilege, as they are prioritized in the media. Examination of the missing white woman syndrome does not diminish the significance of the cases of disappearance of these women, but rather highlights the erasure that black women face due to media bias.
The United States has a long and grueling history of black slavery, racism, and acts of white supremacy. In recent years, following the murder of George Floyd, protests have erupted highlighting the illegal treatment of black people in America.
Between 2014 and 2020, law enforcement killed at least 7,680 people across the states, more than 25% of whom were black. Breonna Taylor, Stephon Clark and Alton Sterling are just a few examples of people who have suffered the unfortunate consequences of police brutality. Studies show that black people are often marginalized and targeted due to systemic racism. This logic can also apply to the media bias they face, as their cases are not considered “worthy enough” to make headlines.
Black women and missing people of color are victims of social prejudice against them, which results in a further spread of the injustice already historically established. The phenomenon of missing and murdered white woman syndrome is an extension of systemic racism and promotes social obsession with white superiority and silences people of color. Media bias can be seen in various forms across all platforms, which is why educating ourselves about bias and propaganda, as well as sourcing our daily news from various outlets, is essential to try to avoid bias. biases in our own opinions and worldviews.