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‘Missing White Woman’ syndrome: Is the media to blame for racial bias in police searches?

It is, sadly, unsurprising that middle-aged Nichola Bulley received ten times the amount of media coverage that thirteen-year-old Mariama Kallon did. Although Mariama was found 11 days later, findings on Press Reader, reveal that, in the first week after both disappearances, Nicola was mentioned in around 40 articles, whereas was Mariama was mentioned in just 4.

Equally, the name Madeleine McCann is undeniably etched into the memory of Brits nationwide. But what about the names of British-Vietnamese student, Elizabeth Chau and 14-year-old Somali child, Zahra Abdi, both of whom have been missing for longer than McCann?

Despite the fact that black people are more likely to be reported as missing persons in England and Wales, the standard face of ‘the missing person’ in the UK is the white woman.

Artwork by Soni López-Chávez (@soni_artist)

In response to media coverage of Sarah Everard’s disappearance, Tobi Oredein, founder and Editor of Black Ballad magazine said: “When black girls go missing, there is a piercing silence by journalists. Yet, when white girls go missing, our national news cycles are flooded with their pictures, and press conferences featuring their families and statements from committed police officers are aired across different news channels, hours after their disappearances are logged.”

Two years on, this statement rings true. With the extensive reporting on the disappearance of Nicola Bulley over the past few months, one thing remains glaringly evident: the British media continue to perpetuate Missing White Woman Syndrome (MWWS).

Missing White Woman Syndrome is a term coined by American TV news anchor Gwen Ilfil, in reference to the disproportionately high media coverage of missing-person cases involving young, attractive, white, upper-middle class women or girls. However, it’s not just the media that perpetuates the trope of ‘the perfect victim’. Police and charities also play a role in reinforcing this stereotype.

Syracuse University professor of Communications Carol Liebler says, “Police, not journalists, are the real gatekeepers in determining which missing people media pay attention to.” She explains, “News media are extremely reliant on law enforcement in covering missing people. Racial biases in police work are then reflected in what missing person cases are communicated to news media.”

For example, the search for Nichola Bulley was thorough, involving police divers, drones, and a helicopter. Meanwhile, when the mother of Richard Okorogheye requested police assistance in searching for her missing son (who was later found dead), she was asked by an officer, “If you can’t find your son, how do you expect police officers to find your son for you?”

On their website, national charity Missing People offer support to those triggered by the disappearance of Nicola Bulley, choosing to feature only her case on their news page, amongst thousands of cases. Ironically, as an organisation dedicated to shedding light on cases of missing people, it reinforces inequalities in coverage of missing people.

Missing People's News and Campaigns Page

While policing may play a significant role in reproducing MWWS, newsrooms must take accountability. According to McCombs and Shaw’s ‘Agenda-setting theory’, the amount of news coverage allocated to certain issues and events “influences their perceived importance among audiences” and sets the standard of what is and isn’t deemed as newsworthy.

So, why is it so crucial for violence against people of colour to receive more media attention? Not only does media coverage influence which stories are of public interest, it can also prevent similar cases from happening.

Chimene Suleyman, a writer for The Independent, refers to the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, a US police officer who sexually abused 36 black women. According to Suleyman, the under-reporting of abuses against women of colour coincides with “the very same erasure of humanity that allowed Holtzclaw to target and rape 36 black women with the knowledge that no one would care for women who do not fit a certain narrative”.

Ultimately, to break the cycle of MWWS in Western media, better representation is needed. Not only is there a need for more journalists of colour (e.g., the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that just 0.2% of journalists are black), who are more likely to resonate with and report on victims of colour, there is also a need for more positive representations of people of colour across all media forms.

Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2016

If news, films, and TV actively dispel racist stereotypes, people of colour are less likely to be dehumanised in society, and more specifically, in news reports, police stations and courtrooms.

Estelle is our Founder and Editor-in-Chief. She is a student studying MA International Journalism at City, University of London. She is pursuing a career in journalism, writing and activism, and is interested in society, politics, foreign languages and cultures. Her Instagram handle is @estelleuba.

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