5 November 2021

Missing White Girl Syndrome' Continues To Plague Us

Shipman & Goodwin LLP


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According to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) in 2020, 268,884 girls and women were reported missing in the United States.
United States Government, Public Sector
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According to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) in 2020, 268,884 girls and women were reported missing in the United States. Nearly 34% of those reported missing—more than 90,000—were Black, far  greater than their share of the overall female population.

According to census data, Black girls and women account for only about 15% of the U.S. female population. In contrast, white girls and women, including those who identify as Hispanic, made up 59% of the missing, while accounting for 75% of the overall female population.

Despite the numbers, these statistics—and, more importantly, these stories—are not reflected in news coverage of missing person cases.

Often described as "missing white woman" or "missing white girl" syndrome, the phenomenon most recently made headlines when MSNBC host Joy Reid discussed the Gabby Petito case. As authorities converged in Wyoming to search for Petito, in the same state more than 400 Indigenous girls and women went missing between 2011 and the fall of 2020, according to a report by the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center at the University of Wyoming.

Indigenous people made up 21% of homicide victims in Wyoming between 2000 and 2020, despite constituting less than 3% of the state's population. The disparity is magnified when it comes to the media: Only 18% of Indigenous female victims received coverage, when, however, among white victims, 51% were in the news.

Criminologist Zach Sommers published a study from 2016, where for one year, he looked at every article reporting a missing person on CNN, the Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He then looked at the demographics of who appeared in those stories and compared them to the FBI's list of missing persons.

Guess what he found?

White girls and white women were dramatically overrepresented. Although white women represented about a third of the people who went missing, they accounted for about half of all of the articles written about missing persons. We should not be surprised, at least from a theoretical standpoint, that missing females are disproportionately shown on the news—the damsel in distress phenomenon. But women of color are members of both a marginalized gender group  and  a marginalized racial group. I would suggest that this intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism.

In other words, like white women, women of color are subject to sexism, but the form of that sexism differs for them because of the compounding effects of racial discrimination.

This phenomenon is not new. The phrase "missing white girl syndrome" was coined by the late Gwen Ifill to describe the media and public fascination with missing white women. How many of us remember Nancy Grace and her obsession with Natalee Holloway, while ignoring cases involving missing people of color when they vanish? And who can forget all the attention surrounding Lacey Peterson, the pregnant woman killed by her husband Scott?

Anyone who has watched television or listened to radio can bear witness to this disparity. As Ms. Ifill recognized, the coverage decisions are made in places that continue to be disproportionately white. Cases that involve white, middle-class women resonate with assignment editors and news organizations, historically dominated by white men. The one area of diversity that has actually improved in news media is the representation of women, particularly white women, in leadership roles. Hopefully as more women and people of color fill those seats, coverage decisions will change. Diversity of coverage and content are essential.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we pay more attention as a form of competition; it's about other groups getting the same attention as white victims and having their lives honored in the same way. Why the disparate treatment? Well at the risk of sounding glib, why the disparate treatment between white people and people of color in so many other areas? Certainly we can point to the scourge of slavery in this country to argue that historically we clearly have valued lives of white people more than the lives of people of color. But it's not enough to just chalk this phenomenon up to generic racism; the answer, in part, is equally if not even more disturbing because of how we continue to rely on a false narrative that just perpetuates racism and undermines our ability to protect vulnerable women.

Women and girls of color are often viewed as "less innocent" when portrayed in the media. Oftentimes they are criminalized and represented as such in the media if they get any media coverage at all. Historically, women of color are not seen as damsels in distress.

"There are tropes around the 'angry Black woman,' 'the strong Hispanic woman' that we don't have to be lifted up, protected and centered," observed Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead, associate professor of communications and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland, in a report. "White victims tend to be portrayed as being in very safe environments, so it's shocking that something like this could happen, whereas the Black and Latino victims are portrayed as being in unsafe environments, so basically normalizing victimization," she added.

Other sociologists have suggested that white women are often characterized or depicted as good people, while women of color are often characterized as risk-takers or somehow complicit in their own disappearances. A good example of this was when, before 11 women were found on the property of serial killer Anthony Sowell in Cleveland in 2009, and families went to law enforcement asking for help to find their loved ones, they were told that the women were on drugs or ran away, and authorities failed to do anything to find them.

Not only do these lives deserve more media coverage, but there needs to be a better repository of data for use as an intervention. There's an expression for you data wonks—anything we treasure, we measure. Every model of problem solving emphasizes the importance of information, knowing as much about the problem as possible; the history of the problem, the causes and origin of the problem, previous solutions that worked or failed, the scope of the problem and its impact.

We need to assess with some degree of certainty the impact media coverage and public attention have on safe recovery; the socioeconomic background of the victims that may limit resources available to family members and law enforcement to save victims; and even some legally irrelevant factors that nonetheless impact police responses. Is there any doubt that the impact of these variables translates into variable recovery rates or that simple media attention leads to increased speed and therefore success in police investigation?

Speed matters. According to Child Find of America, an organization that provides education and training to help locate missing children, the need to wait 24 hours before calling authorities is a practice that can have detrimental effects, particularly since taking action within the first 48 hours is crucial. "You might have heard that you need to wait 24 hours before reporting a missing person, but the waiting period is a myth," the organization's website says.

Others are calling on governments to pass legislation that can help with the safe return of missing people, such as the Ashanti Alert Act passed in 2018. Named after Ashanti Billie, a 19-year-old Black woman who was kidnapped and killed in 2017, the bill established a nationwide communication network to notify the public about missing people 18 and over who fall outside the scope of America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER) Alerts and Silver Alerts. It still needs major funding to be effective.

Closer to home, we all recall the media attention around Jennifer Dulos, a mother of five who went missing in May 2019. As a former Department of Children and Families commissioner, I can't begin to count the number of women of color whose children came into care when they too went missing, and I defy any reader of this column to recall similar media attention let alone public outcry. Our quick responses to these reports of missing women of color can help find and save them. And our failure to respond as we do when a white woman goes missing impedes their safe return.

We have a lot of work to do.

Originally published by the Connecticut Law Tribune

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