Missing White Woman Syndrome and Discrimination in the Media

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Disparity in Media Coverage: Missing Black Women
  • Criminalization and Marginalization of Black Girls
  • Missing White Woman Syndrome: White Privilege in the Media
  • Impact of Underreporting of a Marginalized Woman
  • Factors Contributing to Disparities in Media Attention
  • Respecting and Protecting Missing Black Women
  • Conclusion


Malcolm X said the most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman and the most neglected person in America is the black woman. Being a woman of color, you can clearly see why Malcolm X’s statement is true to this day. In public media and everyday live you see the disparities in resources, rights and even victimization of black women. Frequently I scroll social media or even see news article of missing black girls and women. Other than a news article and social media post, you typically do not see follow up. There have not been many times when there’s been a report of a missing black girls and there a huge public outcry and awareness of the issue. There is a prevalent  missing white woman syndrome in the media. When other women or youth from other nationalities go missing there is full news coverage, search and rescue parties, expressway billboards, AMBER alter texts and alerts to phones and the list goes one. It is not frequent that this occurs when a person of color goes missing.

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Disparity in Media Coverage: Missing Black Women

A person is considered missing when they have disappeared, and their location is unknown. A person who is considered missing might have left voluntarily, but that is not always the case. The number of missing youths in the America has been fluctuating since 1970’s. In the FBI’s National Crime Information Center in 2018, the NCIC missing person and unidentified persons statistics for the United States reported 612,846 persons missing. Of the missing 59% were white including Hispanic persons while 38% of those missing were minorities. Nearly 40% of missing persons are persons of color yet African Americans make up only 13% of the population according to the most recent census. (Black and Missing infographic) Thousands of people are reported missing every year in the U.S. and while not every case will get widespread media attention, the coverage of white and minority victims is far more disproportionate. Black youth are grossly underreported in the news and for missing girls it’s even worse. When Black girls go missing far more people do not know or do not care other then take action.

Consistently, Black girls and women are disproportionately reported missing from their homes and communities, and when they go missing, the disparity in coverage compared to missing White teens is shameful. Black girls’ lives matter. Our girls deserve protection and support, but our society seems content to ignore them at best and dehumanize them at worst. This paper goes on to talk about the root of the crisis of missing black and brown girls being the criminalization of these girls and the portrayed image and cases of underreporting when these girls go missing. There is a connection between the frequency with which Black girls and women disappear and the cycle of criminalization and incarceration of Black women and girls. By ignoring or underreporting their stories, the media is failing these girls. But so is the criminal justice system.

Criminalization and Marginalization of Black Girls

In Monique E. Morris’s book, “ Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools”, it vagally talks about how black girls have been subjected to narratives that impact the way they view school as less of a priority and themselves as not being able to thrive in an academic environments. She focuses on the full impact of zero tolerance policies and the ways over-reliance on punishment can effectively push black girls out of the school system. The “good girl” and “bad girl” term as outlined in Pushout is a term that has plagued black girls and women which has implications way back to slavery. Society’s deeply believed expectations of black girls which is often influenced by racism and patriarchy has led to a commonality where young women are often mischaracterized and mislabeled because of how they look, dress, speak, and act. This devalued view of these girl is often based on how others perceive them.

There are a growing number of cases involving Black girls that have surfaced to reveal what many have known for centuries. As stated in Pushout, “Black girls are also directly impacted by criminalizing policies and practices that render them vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, dehumanization and under the worst circumstance death.” With the many cases that continue to break headlines and are often displayed in public media, there has not been a comprehensive plan put in place to disrupt the trend of further victimization and delinquency. Too many times are young black girls being criminalized by beliefs, polices and actions that further push away and marginalize these girls from both learning and equal humanity. To counter the criminalization of girls in school is the first step is to understand what their criminalization looks like and implementing resources to support young black girls that can fall into victimization and delinquency and are missing.

Missing White Woman Syndrome: White Privilege in the Media

In Chicago you regularly see reporting of missing black girls but rarely see any follow up after the story is reported. On social media I often see shared posts of many missing girls in the city but there’s no follow up out nor big public outcry on understanding where are all the missing Black girls are. Looking at of the number of Black girls who are reported missing with the number of times news media reports Black girls as missing makes it even clear that underrepresentation is an issue within media. The term “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” was first introduced by Gwen Ifill; a PBS news anchor, the term “Missing White Woman Syndrome” refers to the media’s tunnel-vision-like focus on young, white, attractive and wealthy females. Missing White Woman Syndrome often occurs when mainstream media fails to represent and depict missing persons cases in the same proportion that they appear across races. In a 2010 study, “Missing Children in National News Coverage: Racial and Gender Representations of Missing Children Cases”, Seong-Jae Min and John C. Feaster found that while minorities were disproportionately represented in news coverage, African American missing children specially were significantly underrepresented when compared to national statistics. This was concluded after the researchers compared statics showing that there was only 19.5%, of African American missing children cases covered in news media with 33.2% being the actual percentage of reported incidents from the FBI’s databases. It was found that there were severe racial disparities in media because African American missing children cases were underrepresented in national television news compared to the actual rates of incidence.

What I find to be alarming is with the notion of under reporting these cases, it further supports the common belief that girls and women of color are not worthy of constant media coverage. It is often seen that these victims had to be viewed as better than the perceived stereotypes many women of color carry. Women and teens that did receive more media coverage was because of these better circumstances like being good mother, college educated, career focused and so on. Not fitting into the ideal image category would put the average black woman on the bottom of the list when it comes to news coverage. In addition to race and class, factors such as attractiveness, body size and youthfulness function as criteria in determining worthiness of new coverage of missing women. News coverage of missing black women and girls was more likely to focus on the victim's problems, such as abusive boyfriends or a troubled past while coverage of white women tends to focus on their roles as mothers or daughters. As an African American woman, myself, it bothers me when news outlets eagerly provide extensive coverage of missing and/or murdered white women, while simultaneously black females are also disappearing or being murdered and received little to no attention from the media.

Impact of Underreporting of a Marginalized Woman

In 2012 the effects of under reporting of black and brown girls hit home for me. My younger cousin who was 9 at the time was with family and friends at an annual event held in Chicago called “The Taste of Chicago” where she happened to wander from the group and got lost in the crowd. At a public event with up to 100,000 people attending the event each day, my aunt panicked as she and other family member wandered for a bit to find little Mikayla. After some time, the family alerted the police who were present at the time of the mishap. When speaking to my aunt about the incident she vaguely remembers her interaction with police and what she called their non-eagerness to help find the younger child, she quotes:

“I remember it like it was yesterday, I was so scared and in a panic. After looking on our own for a while I let the police know and they were so busy trying to question what happened in the first place which delayed the process of looking for my baby. In a public place like that I knew it would be hard to find her and needed more help. I basically had to beg and plead with a manager over the event to make intercom announcement throughout the park area and announcements on the stage to alert people there. Thankfully we found her 30 minuets after, we are one of the lucky ones because I know so many people that children have gone missing and abducted and there was little to know mainstream attention on the matter. My main issue is if this was a Caucasian girl the outcry would have been drastically different.

Factors Contributing to Disparities in Media Attention

Hearing stories like this one and reading so many cases of missing black and brown children it’s easy to question why there is a disparity in the media coverage of black girls. Three main factors I want to expound on which supports the disparities in media coverage are the points of these girls being labeled as runaways, criminals and outsiders being desensitized to the entire situation. Often times minority children are initially classified as runaways and the result is that they do not receive the AMBER Alert which is the most known and used missing persons law. AMBER Alert laws are typically used in missing persons cases however youth labeled as runaways are not included due to that label not being included in the AMBER Alert criteria. This existing law is not inclusive enough to support the cases of thousands of Black girls and women that and currently missing in the U.S. When a missing person is labeled as a runaway, there is often a delayed response and even investigation from police and law enforcement. With being labeling a runaway, it indefinitely says that person is not in immediate danger or not put in situations of victimization. Along with this mislabeling it often points blame at parents and caregivers labeling this as irresponsible and neglecting. There are also other perceptions looked at like the person putting themselves in harms way or in the Black culture being labeled as Fast or promiscuous which further supports the notion that persons missing deemed as a runaway is not worthy of media attention.

Another factor that is related to the disparity of media coverage is the criminalization of the missing black women and youth. Frequently, missing youth are seen as delinquents because the typical good youth would obey caregivers and not be in harm’s way in the first place. This over criminalization label is associated with youth having criminal involvement or involvement with gangs and drugs. Regularly the process of criminalizing youth is often carried out by disciplinary policies and practices within schools that can lead students to negative interaction with law enforcement and school push out as outline in the Morris piece, Pushout. This being hyper-criminalization, is what she called, of these young people was composed of exclusion, punishment, racialization, gendered violence, harassment, surveillance and detention by police, probation officers, teachers, community workers, parents and the media.

The final factor that supports these disparities is the idea of desensitization to the topic and not viewing these missing black girl and women as victims. What’s often perceived that these missing youth and women are receiving repercussion for bad decisions and behaviors. It’s often looked at as the missing person having lives that already incorporating impoverish conditions and crime. This lack of attention and concern coincides with familiar narratives of black women and girls of color are the undesired and unlikely victims in society today. Desensitization to this topic is looked at as a coping mechanism to conceal the fact that there is a crisis with black women and girls not receiving adequate media coverage and public attention when they go missing. This further assists with alienating the possibility and fear of an event occurring to one’s self. Regularly public responses are rarely on the same level as the situation at hand. If the public were to respond to every missing report with sadness and worry and anger, there would be constant fear and possible actions towards recovering all missing person. We often desensitize ourselves to what’s going on around us to continue to function and our nonchalant responses allow us to do that. What I find that coincides with desensitization of black women and girls gone missing is that the public further view white women as “ideal” victims who are submissive, regularly weaker than ethnic women and unable to protect themselves from crime. The media contributes to the continuance of viewing white women as primary victims.

Respecting and Protecting Missing Black Women

The media and criminal justice system should respect and protect black women and girls. There is a need for more attention to the crisis of missing black girls and women. The media and criminal justice system constantly fail women of color when they should function as a tool to support these black women in need. The demand for proper support had been supported by the work of everyday people and some non-profits paving the way for awareness to this issue. The Black and Missing Foundation is one non-profit that is paving the way for helping families of color file police reports, help with the creation of missing posts and assist with spreading the word about missing youth within public and private networks. A combination of social media and activism can assist people to be connected and be alerted of the crisis of missing black women. Adequate media coverage is vital to helping solve cases of missing black women. Black girls should be noticed and acknowledged within and outside the Black community. Once we recognized these black women as valuable then society will recognize them as worthy of adequate media attention and awareness when they go missing.


Black women and girls are not the only ones missing in American however this problem is disproportionately affecting black communities. The truth is that until recently no one seemed to care about the whereabouts of missing black women. When Chanel Dickerson, a commander for the Washington Police Department launched the twitter hashtag #MissingDCGirls, it gained a lot of attention on social media. The results from this had led to introduced policies aimed at the FBI and Justice Department to dedicate resources and polices to address this problem. As a youth worker I fear for my students as I have heard personal stories connecting them to missing persons or knowledge of them traveling far and often late to their destination. I aim to continue to spread awareness of this crisis. We must teach our youth to be aware of their surroundings. Although you can never estimate when danger will occur, its best to be aware of where you are always and who’s around you to have awareness. 

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