Race and Gender: Media Bias in Coverage of Missing Persons

A survey of literature and clips on “The Missing White Girl Syndrome.”


A missing-person case will get more media coverage if the missing person is an attractive, young white woman. That’s according to a variety of media analysts, who label what they consider to be racial bias in the media, “The Missing White Girl Syndrome.”

Presented here is a survey of literature and clips, analyzing what “The Missing White Girl Syndrome” looks like in media today, and how the phrase illustrates a modern American narrative of racial and gender bias.

Popularized in journalist Sarah Stillman’s essay of the same name, “The Missing White Girl Syndrome” identifies an oft discussed phenomenon among scholars and journalists: how the media is more likely to mine an sympathetic response from a white woman’s disappearance than the disappearance of a person of color.

Published in a 2007 issue of sociology journal “Gender and Development,” Stillman’s essay accuses the media of giving audiences a “subtle instruction manual” on how to empathize with certain missing persons victims over others.

“These messages are powerful: they position certain sub-groups of women — often white, wealthy and conventionally attractive — as deserving of our collective resources, while making the marginalization and victimization of other groups of women, such as low-income women of color, seem natural,” Stillman wrote in her essay.

“Cable news serves up images and anecdotes of the victims,” she wrote. “Media-aware lawyers and pop psychologists debate possible suspects on radio talk shows, and the national public participates in the trauma of ‘every parent’s worst nightmare’ — building memorial websites, for example, or erecting shrines of flowers and stuffed animals to the young women and girls at the center of the media flurry.”

In 2014, The Black and Missing Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to “bring awareness to missing persons of color; provide vital resources and tools to missing person’s families and friends and to educate the minority community on personal safety,” recorded 635,155 people missing. Sixty percent were white, 37 percent were a person of color and 3 percent were unknown. Of the total missing, 315,025 were male and 320,086 were female.

People of color accounted for nearly 40 percent of national missing person entries in 2014.

Source: The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center 

  • Asian (12,547) 1.98% 1.98%
  • Black (217,684) 34.27% 34.27%
  • India (9,362) 1.47% 1.47%
  • White [Non-Hispanic & Hispanic] (377,546) 59.54% 59.54%
  • Unknown (18,016) 2.84% 2.84%

While these numbers show a significant number of white people reported missing, they also suggest that media coverage of missing persons would be more balanced based on gender.  But “The Missing White Girl Syndrome” is still visible in how the news covers cases.

In 2003, a 21-year old black woman Romona Moore disappeared in Brooklyn, New York. At the same time, Svetlana Aranov, a white rare books dealer, went missing in the Upper East Side. Moore’s mother sued the city, claiming police barely looked for her daughter. In contrast, she said, the police launched an immediate, all-out search for Aronov. Aronov was all over the news, and Moore was only in the news after her mother filed a lawsuit.

Similarly, the widely covered disappearance of Natalee Holloway illustrated the media’s conditional interest in missing persons cases. Holloway disappeared during a high school graduation trip to Aruba on May 30, 2005. Media coverage of the missing blond-haired, blue-eyed 18-year-old woman was immediate and frequent. The New York Times published eight articles about her disappearance in the three weeks since she failed to make the flight home, while local news outlets across the country frequently reported stories showing how her hometown of Mountain Brook, Alabama coped with her disappearance.

Media Coverage of Six Missing Persons Cases Involving Whites and People of Color.

In an analysis of six cases, white missing people received more media coverage — both in a short time and over the years — compared to missing people of color.


Timeline Credit: Asia Ewart

“Anxious residents of this affluent Birmingham suburb adorned trees and mailboxes with yellow ribbons and joined a fifth day of prayer vigil for the safe return of honor student Natalee Holloway,” wrote Jeffry Scott in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 5, 2005.

A month and a half later, on July 18, 25-year-old Latoyia Figueroa disappeared in Philadelphia after going to a doctor’s appointment, five months pregnant with her second child. She was of African American and Hispanic descent. It wasn’t until several weeks after Figueroa’s disappearance, under the pressure of the Philadelphia based blog allspinzone.com, that national news media started to take notice.

“There was one piece of the story I heard yesterday – why is it 11 days into the event, and now all of a sudden the full resources of the Philadelphia police homicide division are just being brought into the case? The quote, ‘it’s about her pregnancy,’ bothered me – this wasn’t an issue 11 days ago?” wrote allspinzone.com blogger Richard Blair.

Rick Lyman of the New York Times wrote that mainstream media covered Figueroa’s disappearance only because Blair wrote a letter to Nancy Grace at CNN, urging her to give Figueroa’s case even a fraction of the airtime that Natalee Holloway’s case received.

“Certainly, everybody hopes that they find out what happened to Natalee Holloway in Aruba and to all the other missing young women,” Juan F. Ramos, then a city councilman, told Lyman. “But for a while there, you had to wonder: why not Latoyia?”

Sociologist Paul Mokrzycki argued that Holloway’s disappearance took such precedence over other missing persons cases because Holloway looked like the typical American girl.

“As a telegenic, blond, white American woman, or ‘girl,’ she commands attention — in major network studios, in the living rooms of ordinary television viewers, and in the segregated fraternity and sorority mansions at the University of Alabama,” Mokrzycki wrote in his essay, “A Flower Smashed By A Rock,” published in online journal NeoAmericanist in 2014.

“The seductive image of white female victimhood as a call to political action or sociocultural change in the United States dates back to at least the Reconstruction South,” he said.

Across the Canadian border, activist Kristen Gilchrist conducted a comparative study of local press coverage about three missing aboriginal women from Saskatchewan and three missing white women from Ontario.

In her 2010 study “‘Newsworthy’ Victims?” for the Feminist Media Studies journal, Gilchrist found that aboriginal women were mentioned in 53 articles compared with the 187 articles mentioning white women. The conclusion of her study found that the saturation of these missing white women in the Canadian press left little room for coverage of the aboriginal women.

“The invisibility of missing aboriginal women from the news landscape depends on the hyper-visibility of missing white women,” she wrote.

“While the white middle-class victims were considered legitimate, ‘worthy,’ and ‘innocent,’ the aboriginal women by contrast were denied such status and legitimacy.”

The sociologist Makryzycki’s take away from such coverage is that terms used by the press to characterize the missing persons are coded to characterize the victims based on race.

“Here we see how ‘innocence’ assumed very specific racial, class, and gendered meanings,’ he wrote. “This fascination builds
on historically rooted conceptions of beauty and innocence articulated through film, television, and print media.”

Makryzycki said that the media’s empathetic portrayal of missing white women remains resonant, even when other details about the victims come to light. In the case of Natalee Holloway, he said that her heavy partying in the final hours of her disappearance wasn’t a factor in media coverage.

“Perhaps no one knows what happened to Holloway, but the fact that she might have spent her final hours in a drunken, sex-crazed stupor rubs many folks the wrong way,” he wrote. “Yet she still occupies a place of privilege in the American media canon.”

“The missing children scare, which already privileges the normative — white, middle class, asexual, photogenic — child and draws attention away from more pressing problems that youths of color disproportionately face, exacerbates pervasive misconceptions about race.”

Photo: News crews standing by the wall for Natalee Holloway on June 10, 2015. By maryatuab/Flickr & Wikimedia Commons.

Back to Part Two

Coverage of Missing Transgender Women of Color


The racial and gender bias in missing persons cases also exists in the LGBTQ community. Transgender women of color get very little media coverage when it comes to tragedies such as disappearances.

Heather Hodges, 22, and Sage Smith, 19, were both reported missing in Virginia in 2012. Hodges, who was white and cisgender, disappeared from her Franklin County home on the night of April 9. Her boyfriend, Paul Jordan, 39, told authorities he stepped out to Dairy Queen for ten minutes, and when he returned, Hodges was gone. Local and mainstream news platforms in and out of the United States covered Hodges’s disappearance. New information on her case was reported numerous times in the three years since she went missing including a March 2015 article reporting that a planned memorial for her wouldn’t be allowed because of Hodges’s criminal background.

Smith, a black transgender woman, received much less attention. The Huffington Post and LGBTQ advocacy organization GLADD covered her disappearance, but for the most part, Smith’s story stayed within the realm of smaller LGBTQ websites. Smith’s case was not reported on or updated outside of Charlottesville, VA, where Smith went missing.

“A white trans* person is far more likely to get press than a trans* person of color,” said Kylar Broadus, executive director of the Trans People of Color Coalition, a non-profit social justice organization. “When they go missing or when they die, it becomes a public debate and there are conversations all over the states.”

An example of this is the case of Leelah Alcorn, a white transgender teen from Ohio who walked in front of a truck on Interstate 71 in December 2014. Her suicide sparked an international discussion about gender identity. Since then, “Leelah’s Law,” an online petition calling for the banning of conversion therapy — which Alcorn’s parents forced her to attend in hopes that she would reject her trans* identity — garnered over 300,000 signatures a month later. It also has the support of President Obama. Alcorn’s case has been discussed globally by major news outlets such as CNN, Time and NBC and has had received acknowledgement from celebrities such as Miley Cyrus.

“The only time people of color make news in cases like this is when it’s fatal, when they’re murdered. Even then it makes little news,” says Broadus. He explains that transgender people of color experience the most pervasive forms of discrimination because they are both people of color and identify as transgender.

When Blake Brockington, a black transgender boy and teen activist from North Carolina committed suicide in March 2015, his death received less acknowledgement from the media. Despite articles in the Huffington Post, the New York Daily News and Daily Mail, and acknowledgement from transgender activists Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, his case was covered mainly by North Carolina news publications and LGBTQ websites. There were little to no followups.

According to LGBTQ violence prevention organization the New York City Anti-Violence Project, as of February 2015, there have been six reported homicides of transgender women of color in the United States. February of the previous year saw no media reported deaths of transgender women, but by the release of the Transgender Day of Remembrance list in November, there had been 12 homicides in the U.S. These numbers don’t include homicides that weren’t reported or victims who were misgendered by police officers and family members.

The current visibility of transgender women, from those who’ve disappeared and been murdered to public figures, and how their stories are handled by the media is the first step in refining how society approaches its treatment of trans* women, but progress still needs to be made. Author and activist Janet Mock explains this in her essay, “A Note on Visibility in the Wake of 6 Trans Women’s Murders in 2015.”

“Our visibility at this particular moment in culture is helping reshape the narrative of trans* women’s lives…” she writes. “What we can’t expect this visibility to do is cure our society of its longstanding prejudice, miseducation and myths surrounding trans* women.”