Missing white woman syndrome: an empirical analysis of race and gender disparities in online news coverage of missing persons.

Author:Sommers, Zach

TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION I. PRIOR LITERATURE: DEMOGRAPHIC DISPARITIES IN MEDIA COVERAGE OF ABDUCTION AND CRIME MORE GENERALLY A. Race in Media Coverage of Crime: The Benefits of Whiteness B. Gender and Intersectionality in Media Coverage of Crime C. Theories Explaining Race and Gender Disparities in News Coverage of Crime II. DATA AND METHODOLOGY A. Stage I Analysis: Who Garners Missing Person Media Coverage? 1. Subset of Missing Persons Covered by Internet News Sites 2. Overall Missing Person Data: FBI Missing Person File 3. Comparative Analysis of Missing Individuals in the Media and Overall Missing Person Population B. Stage II Analysis: Do Certain Groups Receive a Higher Intensity of News Coverage? III. RESULTS A. Stage I: Race Across Individuals B. Stage I: Gender Across Individuals C. Stage I: The Intersection of Race and Gender Across Individuals D. Stage II: Race And Coverage Intensity E. Stage II: Gender and Coverage Intensity F. Stage II: The Intersection of Race and Gender and Coverage Intensity G. Stage II: Regression Analysis and Coverage Intensity IV. DISCUSSION CONCLUSION INTRODUCTION

On Sunday morning, November 3, 2013, Aaron Hubbard went to church. (1) It was the last time his family would see him alive. (2) A few hours later, Chicago police received a report that Hubbard had been kidnapped. (3) According to witnesses, Hubbard, a seventeen-year-old high school student, was attacked and thrown into a truck that quickly drove away. (4) After eight days of searching, police found Hubbard's decomposing body in an abandoned building not far from where the abduction had occurred. (5) A handful of short news stories documented the story in Hubbard's hometown of Chicago, (6) but the case received no coverage on a regional or national scale.

Three months earlier, in August, California native Hannah Anderson disappeared, triggering a massive manhunt for her and her alleged kidnapper. (7) The incident sparked a media firestorm, with news agencies across the country covering the sixteen-year-old's disappearance. (8) Local and national media outlets tracked the investigation, (9) with CNN.com alone publishing more than twenty print stories and over thirty video segments on the developments. (10) One week later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) found Anderson alive and killed her captor. (11)

Much about the two cases was similar. The incidents, which occurred within a few months of each other, both involved abducted teenagers who were located about one week later. Why, then, was there such a huge disparity in the amount of media attention paid to the two cases? Perhaps it was because a suspect was identified early on in Anderson's case, (12) whereas the initial investigation into Hubbard's disappearance was less successful. (13) Or, alternatively, maybe geography played a role. National or regional news agencies might deem an abduction in Chicago as less newsworthy than one in southern California. But what if the disparity resulted from the simple fact that at the time, Hubbard was a young black man and Anderson was a young white woman?

Many bloggers and commenters have argued that there are widespread and systematic race and gender disparities in the amount of media coverage dedicated to abduction or missing persons cases like those of Hubbard and Anderson. (14) They have termed the phenomenon "Missing White Woman Syndrome," or alternatively "Missing White Girl Syndrome," based on the belief that white women (15) tend to disproportionately receive the most amount of news coverage. (16) Academics have joined the fray in theorizing and trying to understand why these perceived disparities exist. (17) However, even with those theoretical contributions, surprisingly little work has been done to actually establish empirically that the disparity is real. The two articles most directly examining the issue in the American context are limited only to missing juveniles, rather than missing persons of all ages. (18) Other, more tangential studies have instead focused primarily on race and crime more broadly while also largely ignoring Internet news as a medium. (19) As a result, that literature only indirectly speaks to Missing White Woman Syndrome (MWWS), and more commonly only to its race component. (20) Additionally, there is a tendency among crime and media studies of all types to focus on the threshold question of who receives any coverage at all while disregarding the issue of differing levels of coverage intensity, or the amount of coverage that different victims in the media receive. (21)

This article aims to remedy those deficiencies by: (1) further extending the crime and media literature to the specific realm of abduction; (2) using an intersectional approach to test both the race and gender components of MWWS across both juveniles and adults; (3) examining Internet news, rather than TV news or newspapers; and (4) using two different units of measurement to investigate disparities in both the reception of any media coverage at all and differing levels of coverage intensity. Conducting these tests consisted first of compiling all articles about missing persons published on four prominent news websites during the calendar year 2013. (22) These news website data provide a population of missing persons that received online news coverage that can be compared and contrasted with the overall population of missing persons in the United States, as collated by the FBI. Furthermore, the media data can also be evaluated using multiple regression analysis to explore differences in the intensity of coverage that missing persons in the news receive. The results of these two analytic steps suggest that there is indeed empirical evidence to support the perceptions of demographic disparities in abduction news coverage that manifest themselves in two distinct ways. Not only are missing blacks and missing men less likely at the outset to garner media coverage than other types of missing persons, but they also receive a lower intensity of coverage when their stories are, in fact, picked up by news outlets. In other words, there is a two-stage discrepancy that limits the amount of coverage certain types of missing persons receive.

This article is organized as follows. Part I reviews the relevant prior literature in the area, beginning in Part I.A with the empirical research that has focused on race. Although limited research on media coverage disparities in abduction cases exists, there is a rich body of work concerning racial disparities in coverage of crime more broadly. Next, Part I.B presents the even more limited empirical evidence focused on gender and intersectional disparities in news coverage of crime. Lastly, Part I.C surveys the theories that have been put forth to explain the findings in these areas.

Part II describes the data and methodology. This section details the data collection process used to scrape the Internet data, describes the FBI data used as a comparison, and outlines the analytic techniques used to examine the data. Part III presents the results of the two-stage analysis. First, the results of a comparative analysis on the individual level between the Internet data and the FBI data are explained. Then, the results of a second, slightly different comparative analysis, along with a multiple regression analysis, are presented to explore differences in coverage intensity. Part IV discusses the findings and their theoretical implications. Lastly, Part V concludes, discusses limitations, and presents possible future directions for research in this area.


    The existing literature pertaining to MWWS is conspicuously underdeveloped. Very little empirical data exist to support the idea that certain kinds of missing persons are more likely to receive media attention than others. Moreover, the few studies that have been conducted in the area limit their examination only to children (23) or focus on local, non-American contexts. (24) The literature is far more comprehensive when expanding the scope of the subject matter to crime more generally, although it is still sparse when it comes to Internet news, the intersection of race and gender, and coverage intensity.

    The issue of coverage intensity is a particularly important one, as there is a significant difference between a case that is the subject of a single news story and a high-profile case that dominates the news, or a "signal crime." (25) Signal crimes that receive extensive news coverage are much more visible than cases that only receive a stray news story or two, and thus are likely to have a greater influence on the perceptions and beliefs of viewers and readers. As a result, examining coverage intensity, in addition to the threshold issue of who receives any media attention at all, allows for a more comprehensive and nuanced illustration of the types of disparities hypothesized by MWWS.

    Although the literature relating to MWWS is limited in multiple respects, there is a wealth of work investigating the broader issue of the effect of race on the threshold question of who receives any newspaper or TV crime coverage. (26) Part I.A of this article provides an overview of the empirical trends found in the narrow literature on media, race, and abduction before turning to the empirical trends that have emerged in the broader literature focusing on media, race, and all types of violent crime. Next, Part I.B considers the data related to the role of gender-both independently and in its intersection with race-in media coverage of crime. Finally, Part FC presents the theoretical contributions and explanations of the empirical scholarship in this area.


      For the most part, researchers in this area have dedicated their energies to the broader nexus of race, media, and crime rather...

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