Missing white woman syndrome

Missing white woman syndrome

Missing white woman syndrome (MWWS) or missing pretty girl syndrome is a term used by some media and social critics to describe the seemingly disproportionate degree of coverage in television, radio, newspaper and magazine reporting of a misfortune, most often a missing person case, involving a young, attractive, white, upper-middle class (frequently blonde) woman or girl. This degree of coverage is usually contrasted with cases concerning a missing male, or missing females of other ethnicities, socioeconomic classes or physical attractiveness.[1][2]


Media coverage

United States

Kim Pasqualini, president of the National Center for Missing Adults, opines that the media tends to focus on "damsels in distress" – typically, affluent young white women and teenagers.[3]

While the disappearances of Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway became sensational news stories, a pregnant black/Hispanic woman named LaToyia Figueroa disappeared from Philadelphia three years later and attracted less national attention, despite efforts by her family to enlist the media to help find her. (Figueroa was later found murdered.)[4] One observer also saw contrasts between the attention received by Peterson and Evelyn Hernandez who was nine months pregnant when she disappeared in 2002.[5]

United Kingdom

Two cases of missing pretty girl syndrome are given as contrasting examples: the murder of Hannah Williams and the murder of Danielle Jones. Although both victims were white female teenagers, Jones received more coverage than Williams.[citation needed] It is suggested that this is because Jones was a middle-class schoolgirl, whilst Williams was from a working-class background with a stud in her nose and estranged parents.[6]

In 2011, the case of the murder of Jia Ashton received minimal coverage in the national press[citation needed] (most notably being restricted to the Derby section of the BBC News website, and appearing on the BBC National News only once), whereas the Murder of Sian O'Callaghan sparked national coverage for some weeks, including extensive coverage by the BBC.[citation needed]

Yvonne Jewkes[7] cites the murder of Amanda Dowler, the murder of Sarah Payne, and the Soham murders as examples of "eminently newsworthy stories" about girls from "respectable" middle-class families and backgrounds whose parents used the news media effectively. She claims that in contrast, the street murder of Damilola Taylor initially received little news coverage, with reports initially concentrating upon street crime levels and community policing, and largely ignoring the victim.

Even when the victim's father flew into the UK from Nigeria to make press statements and television appearances, the level of public outcry did not, Jewkes asserts, reach "the near hysterical outpourings of anger and sadness that accompanied the deaths of Sarah, Milly, Holly, and Jessica".[7]

Cited instances

The following missing person cases have been cited as examples of missing white woman syndrome:

United States

In the Iraq War

Critics have also pointed to media bias in the coverage of soldier Jessica Lynch versus that of her fellow soldiers, Shoshana Johnson and Lori Piestewa. All three were ambushed in the same attack during the Iraq War on March 23, 2003, with Piestewa being killed and Lynch and Johnson being injured and taken prisoner. Lynch, a young, blonde, white woman, received far more media coverage than Johnson (a black woman and a single mother) and Piestewa (a Hopi from an impoverished background, and also a single mother), with media critics suggesting that the media gave more attention to the woman with whom audiences would more readily identify.[12][13]

Lynch herself leveled harsh criticism at this disproportionate coverage that focused only on her, stating in a congressional testimony before the United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:

I am still confused as to why they chose to lie and tried to make me a legend when the real heroics of my fellow soldiers that day were, in fact, legendary. People like Lori Piestewa and First Sergeant Dowdy who picked up fellow soldiers in harm's way. Or people like Patrick Miller and Sergeant Donald Walters who actually fought until the very end. The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals of heroes and they don't need to be told elaborate tales.[14]


  1. ^ Foreman, Tom (March 14, 2006). "Diagnosing 'Missing White Woman Syndrome'". CNN.com. http://edition.cnn.com/CNN/Programs/anderson.cooper.360/blog/2006/03/diagnosing-missing-white-woman.html. Retrieved July 7, 2011. "phrase invoked by Sheri Parks, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park" 
  2. ^ Robinson, Eugene (June 10, 2005). "(White) Women We Love". The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/09/AR2005060901729.html. Retrieved July 7, 2011. "choosing only young, white, middle-class women for the full damsel treatment" 
  3. ^ Krajicek, David. "Damsels in Distress". TruTV.com. p. 3. http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/criminal_mind/forensics/americas_missing/3.html. Retrieved July 7, 2011. 
  4. ^ "CNN Transcript". Transcripts.cnn.com. March 17, 2006. http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0603/17/sbt.01.html. Retrieved November 24, 2010. 
  5. ^ St. John, Kelly (April 21, 2003). "Eerily similar case languishes in obscurity; Torso of missing pregnant mom was found in S.F. Bay last year". San Francisco Chronicle. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2003/04/21/MN275651.DTL. Retrieved November 24, 2010. 
  6. ^ Fiona Brookman (2005). Understanding Homicide. Sage Publications. p. 257. ISBN 0761947558. 
  7. ^ a b Yvonne Jewkes (2004). Media and Crime. Sage Publications Inc. pp. 52–53. ISBN 0761947655. 
  8. ^ a b c d Johnson, Alex (July 23, 2004). "Damsels in distress: If you’re missing, it helps to be young, white and female". MSNBC.com. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5325808. Retrieved July 7, 2011. 
  9. ^ “House panel passes 'Dru's Law' in sex offender bill”, USA Today, 2005
  10. ^ “Race Bias in Media Coverage of Missing Women?; Cheryl Hines Dishes on New Show”, CNN, transcript, aired March 17, 2006
  11. ^ “Remembering Michelle”, CNN, blog entry recaps In Session anchor Jami Floyd's commentary at opening of In Session's coverage of Gardner-Quinn murder trial, aired July 10, 2008
  12. ^ Douglas, Williams (November 9, 2003). "A case of race? One POW acclaimed, another ignored". Seattle Times. Archived from the original on December 6, 2004. http://web.archive.org/web/20041206230652/http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2001786800_shoshana09.html. 
  13. ^ Osha Gray Davidson (May 27, 2004). "The Forgotten Soldier". Rolling Stone Magazine ALT mirror article. Archived from the original on 2009-02-24. http://web.archive.org/web/20090224023524/http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/6085435/the_forgotten_soldier/. Retrieved July 31, 2007. 
  14. ^ "Testimony of Jessica Lynch". Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Archived from the original on 2009-02-20. http://web.archive.org/web/20090220085535/http://oversight.house.gov/documents/20070424110022.pdf. Retrieved February 2, 2009. 

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