In 2004, at the Unity journalists of color convention in Washington, Gwen Ifill coined the phrase “missing white woman syndrome,” joking that “if there is a missing white woman you’re going to cover that every day.”. It is not that these white women should matter less, but rather that all missing people should matter equally. Race should not determine how newsroom leaders assign coverage, especially because those decisions often lead to disproportionate allocation of government resources, as investigators try to solve the highest-profile cases.
The obsessive fascination with missing white women also leads to a slanting in sympathies. All missing-persons stories are human tragedies, and because we are all human we empathize with the people we see. But this also erases the trauma of other missing people, as if nonwhite people never go missing, when they absolutely do.
It all becomes cyclical: Media raises the profile; law enforcement engages because of that high profile; the public becomes invested; then the media continues its coverage because of the massive law enforcement response and widespread public interest.
Just like that, we have all been manipulated into playing a part in the white damsel ideology, that young white women, often attractive, are the very epitome of innocence and virtue.
It should be noted that the basis for Blow's piece is generally correct, except that hundreds of white women and teen girls also go missing each year also get no press coverage. The latter are often teen runaways who somehow end up in sex trafficking rings or otherwise fall out of sight. The women are usually from lower or working class backgrounds and lack the family connections and know how to use the media ecosystem to push for attention. They have the resources that the families of other white missing females lack.
This is not, however, to dismiss or minimize the disappearance of hundreds of women of color each year - as Mr. Blow notes - numbering 700 or more. It is only to point out that the peculiar emphasis of the media on certain higher profile white women must not be construed to mean that it is an exclusively white female bias. In fact, it is more a general class bias - applicable as much to poorer whites as to women of color and indigenous women, girls.
In 2020, according to a CNN report, an estimated 500,000 Americans went missing of which 300,000 were whites. Most of those whites you never heard word one about in the media. Nor will you. True, 200,000 non-whites were included in those missing - but neither will you hear much about any of them. Why?
It is understandable that the recent near wall-to-wall coverage of Gabrielle ("Gabby") Petito's disappearance has again focused attention on missing white females. But this wasn't merely because she was white but because of the macabre circumstances surrounding the case. Thus, the fact she had been traveling with a fiancé (Brian Laundrie) who left her alone and drove back home himself attracted attention, and so did his own subsequent disappearance. Another factor that helped enormously in Petito's case was her profile on Instagram in which she shared living her dream of traveling the country. This enabled other users to connect, including another traveling couple that spotted the couple's white van and conveyed the info to police. In an age of social media contacts this is likely critical and also means if a person like me vanished - who never carries or owns a cell - it is doubtful I would be found either. Just something to consider.
This harkens back to perhaps the most infamous missing white woman case in recent years, that of Shanann Watts. Readers may recall all the drama that erupted when Colorado husband Chris Watts reported his wife Shanann - and two young daughters, Bella and Celeste- went missing in November, 2018. He swore he had no clue how or why this disappearance happened. (Though Shanann's cell was never taken with her.) This went on for some time before it was discovered he had strangled his wife, and then killed his two daughters before tossing their bodies into an oil tank. (At a location near where he worked.)
Again, it was the macabre circumstances of the case that drove media attention. The intensity of that coverage as well as that of Gabby Petito -also mirrored the fascination of social media users - who also pored over photos, videos. One other NY Times writer, Katie Robertson, also observed that the "disappearances of women of color tend not to generate the same volume of media interest despite occurring at a higher rate."
But then again we must ask why? I submit there are two overriding reasons: 1) The resources at the disposal of the missing woman's family (in the preceding case that of Shanann Watts in NC) and 2) the macabre events surrounding the disappearance. The other factor that works against vanishing women (or men) of any color is their sheer numbers. The corporate media finds a similar dynamic operating when a story focusing on one notable or tragic death - say of a crippled child - grabs clicks or readers dwarfing the account of mass deaths of those killed in an earthquake. In effect, we have become accustomed to a focus on the few exposed to perdition, as opposed to the many. But is this the fault of the media, or of human nature - and specifically the human brain itself?
Well, I suspect it's partly of both but mainly the biological structure and tendencies of the brain which is unable to assimilate the scope of mass death (or mass disappearance), and feel the same degree of empathy as for single victims. My post doc psychology niece Shayl confirms this, noting:
"It's just too big an ask for the typical human to psychologically process a mass death event, say like 200,000 -plus dying in the tsunami that struck in the Indian Ocean in 2004. Our limited brains aren't equipped to extend sympathy like we can for a murdered child, like Bella who screamed "No, daddy no!" When Chris Watts smothered her with a pillow."
I would suggest the same thing would apply if every missing female - white, brown or black- had feature stories written about her. In the end the clicks and reads would only accumulate for the few, those missing in macabre or unusual circumstances and whose families have the resources to tap the interest of the media.
Stewart Coles - another post doc (in communications)- argues that the public interest in the Petito case helped drive the media coverage - which makes sense. Go to any news web site, whether WSJ, WAPO, FT or NYT, and it is obvious reads, clicks are tracked. Media websites seeing more clicks, reads for a specific story will continue to run with it or find new angles. Coles argues, however, this isn't the full story, e.g.
"We have to consider how sometimes choices about hat stories are read and what we know are based on what gatekeepers within that media think people want to know about. So if those gatekeepers think that readers are more interested in a missing white woman, they are going to give more information, news about that."
Which makes sense, but as MSNBC's Joy Reid pointed out in 'Reid Out' on Friday, gatekeepers could still be persuaded to cover more disappearance cases of prominent women (and men, like geologist Daniel Robinson) of color. This would at least be a start in balanced coverage and commensurate with the excess coverage of certain white missing people - namely women. But it would require a conscious effort, not merely an obsession with click stats.
Even with such an initiative there's no guarantee that the disappearances of people of color will ever generate the same volume of media interest - but at least it's a start and an improvement over what we behold now. Yes, there is indeed a missing persons attention problem in this country but it extends beyond white women. It extends to all those who may not have the same access to social media or a profile that engages others of their race. Also, to those whose class may not command the resources or PR savvy to enlist the full breadth of the legal infrastructure to pursue leads to locate a missing loved one.