Missing White Woman Syndrome: An Empirical Analysis of Race and Gender Disparities in Online News Coverage of Missing Persons

Sommers, Zach | January 1, 2016

At any given time, there are tens of thousands of Americans categorized as “missing” by law enforcement. However, only a fraction of those individuals receive news coverage, leading some commentators to hypothesize that missing persons with certain characteristics are more likely to garner media attention than others: namely, white women and girls. Empirical investigation into this theory is surprisingly sparse and also limited in multiple ways. This paper aims to fill those voids by empirically exploring whether that inequality, dubbed “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” truly exists. Based on a multi-method approach using Federal Bureau of Investigation data and data culled from four major online news sources, the results indicate not only that there are, in fact, race and gender disparities consistent with Missing White Woman Syndrome, but that they manifest themselves in two distinct ways: (1) disparities in the threshold issue of whether a missing person receives any media attention at all; and (2) disparities in coverage intensity among the missing persons that do appear in the news. The paper concludes with an examination of the theoretical and practical implications of the results and a discussion of possible future directions for research.