Opinion Media Stereotypes And The 'Missing White Woman Syndrome"


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
The article drives home the extent to which media shape our perceptions of truth. On a different thread we read how the tag "extremist" is being attached to a group of Sikhs who have assembled to advocate for civil rights and against hatred by forming the Sikh Caucus within the US Congress. In this article we read how the journalistic image of "victim" confounds the public's understanding that violence knows no color barrier. Yes, you don't have to be white or a woman to be kidnapped and worse. If you are not, you are more likely to be ignored.

Cleveland abductions: Do white victims get more attention?
By Tara McKelvey


Three young women disappeared in Cleveland. Media coverage of their cases illustrates stereotypes about race.

Charles Ramsey heard someone screaming in a nearby house. Luckily, he managed to help the woman, Amanda Berry, who was in distress.

Because of his efforts, she, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight escaped from the house in Cleveland where they were held captive for a decade or more.

"I knew something was wrong when a little, pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms," Ramsey said later.

"Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway."

Amanda Berry was reunited with her sister Berry (right) is white - and her case drew twice as much newspaper coverage as that of DeJesus

As it turned out, Ramsey's assessment was a twist on what is known among media critics as the Missing White Woman Syndrome.

Charlton McIlwain, a professor at New York University and the author of Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in US Political Campaigns, defines the syndrome: "White women occupy a privileged role as violent crime victims in news media reporting."

In other words, the victim is white and middle class. Ideally, she is saved - by a white guy.

"Our victims are colour-coded," says McIlwain. A proper victim is one who looks like a journalist, he says.

"Research shows that in terms of crime victims, they are people who we view as being like us - like those who are covering the events or reading about them," he says.

"Our national ideal of who is vulnerable - and who holds victim status - are those who are white and female."

The perception of victimhood is partly a media creation.

In truth, nearly half of those individuals who go missing in the US are not white - though one might not know that from the news coverage.

Berry was abducted in April 2003 and DeJesus a year later. They were children when they vanished, and their families were desperate to find them.

Yet the coverage of their abductions was dramatically different.

In Cleveland, the newspaper stories were mainly about the white girl.

Someone holding a copy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer Reporters for the Cleveland Plain Dealer have covered the abductions for years

In the 10 years Berry was missing, the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper published 36 articles about her, according to a search of electronic news archive Lexis-Nexis.

During the nine-year period that DeJesus, who is Hispanic, was missing, the newspaper published 19 articles about her case.

The coverage of these two cases reflects an overall trend in the media.

According to a 2010 academic study, roughly 80% of the news coverage about missing children is devoted to victims who are not black, while only 20% is given to children who are black.

The breakdown in media coverage does not reflect reality. "We have a sort of racial hierarchy," says McIlwain.

The coverage of violent crime and of people who have disappeared is biased and hurtful, says Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, which fights racial stereotypes in the media.

She first came across the stereotypes in crime reporting when she heard about a 24-year-old black woman, Tamika Huston, who went missing in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 2004.

Journalists seemed indifferent.

"The family really struggled to get any coverage whatsoever," says Wilson.

Wilson knows she cannot change the outcome of these cases. Many end in tragedy. More than a year after Huston's disappearance, a former boyfriend pleaded guilty to her murder.

Yet at least the story has been reported - and her family knows what happened to her.

In some cases, it takes years to sort out the truth.

Some families who have lost a loved one only manage with help from an organisation like the Black and Missing Foundation or from a prominent activist.

Stephen Lawrence, 19, was stabbed by white thugs who used a racial slur in London in April 1993. His murder hardly caused a stir in the national media. After a fortnight, Stephen's family held a press conference to complain not enough was being done by police to catch the killers. Then Nelson Mandela got involved.

Last year the killers, Gary Dobson and David Norris, were sentenced to life in prison for the killing.

Experts say that all too often when crimes are committed against people of colour the cases remain unsolved. And no one except their families seems to care.

The case in Cleveland shone a spotlight on the cases of missing children.

Experts hope that this will make more people pay attention to those who have disappeared, regardless of the colour of their skin.

Indeed, the story may help to remind journalists - and their audiences - that crime cuts across racial lines. It may have another positive aspect, too.

Charles Ramsey helped to save Berry, DeJesus and Knight from their prison. He was also blunt.

"Ramsey just called it like he saw it," says Farai Chideya, author of The Color of Our Future: Race in the 21st Century.

"People say, 'Wow, he's representing our race, and he's doing something really awesome - but why can't he comb his hair?'

"I think it's healthy to expand the notion of what a good black man is. You don't have to have a full set of teeth to be a hero."
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Brother Onam

Jul 11, 2012
Here in Washington DC about six months ago, there was a young man found shot dead in his car. This happens, in this town, so I was surprised with the extensive coverage. Over the course of the next seven to ten days, the papers were full of stories and updates about this case, sometimes a half-page, including interviews with friends, co-workers and family. It turns out he had gone to school in Virginia or somewhere, gotten a job on Capitol Hill, aspired to become a lawyer, etc etc. Great tragedy. This all led to finally the mayor himself holding a press-conference bemoaning this awful crime, and appealing for the funding to increase police on the streets of the neighborhood, so such a tragedy may never happen again. Oh, and the pictures revealed the victim was white.
The day after he was shot, by the way, there was another young man found shot dead in his car elsewhere in the city. This merited about 1 1/2 inches of copy, half of which was devoted to a second murder in DC that night, so really only about three lines for this young man. I don't recall seeing any follow-up stories in which friends and family grieved and reminisced about the youth so tragically cut down (because there weren't any).
Racism is alive, well and deeply entrenched. A true Sikh will be ready always to defy and confront such wickedness wherever it is found, deeply entrenched, also in India.


Apr 7, 2013
I actually reside in Cleveland and this has been on the news for quite awhile. It only happened 5 blocks from my school apparently. It's great to see the girls with their family again. Also 3 boys just went missing today and a amber alert was sent all through Cleveland. Scary things happen.

Tejwant Singh

Jun 30, 2004
Henderson, NV.
It is interesting to notice how abductions, rapes, missing persons, murders, amber alerts carry more weight of urgency and emergency when the victims are white.

The other hues 'pale' in comparison.

Brother Onam

Jul 11, 2012
Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh
Perhaps this ought to be the beginning of another thread elsewhere, but speaking of insidious, deeply entrenched racism, I had a few observations.
Let us remember that the human creation originated in north east Africa, according to anthropological record. As such, north east Africans are the closest example of the divine image of humanity, before the global exodus of the human family in its slow spreading around the world. Maybe it's just a personal aesthetic, but I feel Africans tend to have a special beauty, and when I see dark-skinned Sikhs in India, it also strikes me as very pleasing.
As far as insidious, perhaps sub-conscious racism, though, we ought to be ever vigilant: When I see depictions of Sikh history, too often we are shown bad men, tyrants and executioners as being dark-hued, while the sants tend to be especially Aryan looking. This really springs from the same source as Hindu art depicting tyrants and demons as black or dark, while virtuous or saintly characters unfailingly glow in european-looking complexions. Black crows dip into the Amrit and emerge beautiful and white. Indian journals are full of personals seeking marriage mates for sons and daughters, unabashedly requesting "fair-skinned" applicants.
It is all of one cloth. We often, perhaps unconsciously, buy into the subtle bigotry of the low world, while we ought to be inhabiting the exalted world of Har-consciousness. This is destructive to us and our offspring and it gets us playing along with the scheme of non-believers. In His/Her sight (Shyamsunder), there is nothing special about being pale, a long history of systematic white supremacy notwithstanding.