'Missing white woman syndrome' goes beyond media coverage

'Missing white woman syndrome' goes beyond media coverage
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In the wake of the saturation coverage of Gabby Petito’s disappearance and death, we’ve seen acknowledgement and criticism of the Missing White Woman Syndrome (MWWS) across various media platforms including major news outlets such as MSNBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Most recently, even Petito’s father called on the media to “help all the people that are missing and need help.”

Yet the causes of the MWWS are complex: All news media content is influenced by a variety of factors ranging from individual news workers to organizational routines on up to societal values. So there is no one reason why missing white women garner so much more media attention than their Black, Latino, Indigenous or Asian sisters. There are a number of contributors.

But one factor stands out that influences all of the rest: Dominant ideologies. 

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The missing white woman syndrome is reflective of the dominant ideology of white supremacy. In other words, too often news stories are reported within a white racial frame that reaffirms the notion of white superiority. As a result, we privilege the disappearance of a white individual while people of color are othered, marginalized and symbolically annihilated. 

As we learn their stories, missing white women are humanized. We see them as individuals with real lives, real loved ones. This same subjectivity is not granted to missing people of color. We simply don't see them and we certainly don't feel as though we have gotten to know them. We don’t care about them. 

Yet racial ideologies alone do not drive MWWS. Because it’s not just that Gabby Petito was white: she fit societal beauty standards in terms of age, weight, fitness and even hair color. Dominant beauty ideals — despite recent advances such as the body positivity movement — continue to celebrate the look that Petito epitomized.

And beauty matters in affording access to all sorts of good things in society. I asked advanced news reporting students, many of whom already had some journalism experience, to rate physical attractiveness by showing them the photos on missing children’s posters. I then compared the amount of news coverage each child received to their perceived level of attractiveness and found the more attractive a child was considered to be, the more news stories there were about them. 

These ideologies infiltrate, even guide, everyday news gathering. In the Petito case, the missing white woman syndrome played out on a national stage. But that’s not always the case. In fact, it’s the exception. Local news media, like national outlets, are culpable of framing bias when reporting on missing people. And where they go for their information is one of the problems.

Local reporters are extremely reliant on law enforcement in covering missing people. And my research on missing children shows that police, not journalists, are the biggest factors in determining which missing people attract media attention.

Police post on their Facebook pages or send out press releases for some children, but certainly not all. And families are often shut out because the news media rely on the official word. In other words, journalists want to verify with police that a missing case is real or valid, regardless of what a concerned parent or other family member may have to say.

But if police are setting the news agenda for missing people, we must then be concerned that racism and misogynistic biases in police work will be reflected in which missing person cases are communicated to the news media. 

There’s no quick fix to the missing white woman syndrome. Certainly reporters can broaden their news sources, with less reliance on official sources and make effective use of digital platforms not constrained by time or space. And newsrooms can further diversify their workforce, especially their management while being self-reflective about how they define who and what becomes news. 

But real change in our news coverage will only come with an ideological reset that embraces all humanity — one that reaches far beyond media content.

Carol Liebler is a professor in the Syracuse University Newhouse School of Public Communications. Her research explores news media visibility and the concepts of absence and symbolic annihilation. In this context she has studied missing children and women, including media critiques of “The Missing White Woman Syndrome.”