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Excerpted From: Zach Sommers, Missing White Woman Syndrome: An Empirical Analysis of Race and Gender Disparities in Online News Coverage of Missing Persons, 106 Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 275 (Spring, 2016) (144 Footnotes) (Full Document)


ZachSommersOn Sunday morning, November 3, 2013, Aaron Hubbard went to church. It was the last time his family would see him alive. A few hours later, Chicago police received a report that Hubbard had been kidnapped. According to witnesses, Hubbard, a seventeen-year-old high school student, was attacked and thrown into a truck that quickly drove away. After eight days of searching, police found Hubbard's decomposing body in an abandoned building not far from where the abduction had occurred. A handful of short news stories documented the story in Hubbard's hometown of Chicago, 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. The incident sparked a media firestorm, with news agencies across the country covering the sixteen-year-old's disappearance. Local and national media outlets tracked the investigation, with alone publishing more than twenty print stories and over thirty video segments on the developments. One week later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) found Anderson alive and killed her captor.

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, whereas the initial investigation into Hubbard's disappearance was less successful. 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. They have termed the phenomenon “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” or alternatively “Missing White Girl Syndrome,” based on the belief that white women tend to disproportionately receive the most amount of news coverage. Academics have joined the fray in theorizing and trying to understand why these perceived disparities exist. 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. Other, more tangential studies have instead focused primarily on race and crime more broadly while also largely ignoring Internet news as a medium. As a result, that literature only indirectly speaks to Missing White Woman Syndrome (MWWS), and more commonly only to its race component. 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.

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. 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.

[. . .]

This study takes a major step toward filling four major holes in the relevant literatures. First, it uses both national and local data to establish grounds for the claim that Missing White Woman Syndrome is an empirical fact for abductees of all ages. Second, it emphasizes an intersectional approach to the issue of crime and the media. Third, it extends the literature on the nexus of violent crime and the media to the Internet age by scraping data from online news sources. Fourth, it considers not only the issue of which individuals receive news coverage, but also disparities in coverage intensity.

Still, there are some limitations to the findings. First, and most conspicuous, are the FBI data's limitations. The racial coding system and lack of subgroups by race and gender are less than ideal, but the Active Missing Person File is currently the most complete dataset available on the subject. The FBI could take a series of quick and easy steps to dramatically increase the utility of the File moving forward. First, the racial categories could be revised to more accurately and consistently take into account Latino/a ethnicity in a transparent manner. Second, the File itself could be made available to researchers, rather than just the summary demographic statistics. This would allow for analysis based on the actual individuals present in the Active Missing Person File. To allay any concerns about complications for ongoing investigations, the data could be anonymized and still remain useful to empiricists. Third, even if the Active Missing Person File is not made available, the FBI could at least provide cross-tabulations by race and gender. Such information would allow for more direct testing of the intersectional element of MWWS. A final, more ambitious solution to the data shortcomings would be to add abduction to the list of crimes included in the UCR.

Another limitation of this study is scope of the media dataset. Only one national source is examined, leaving room for investigation of additional national sources moving forward. Likewise, the three regional sites cover a relatively small geographic portion of the U.S. While each regional source in this study independently exhibited evidence of MWWS, looking at other cities and regions would only strengthen the empirical foundation in this area.

In addition, the study took several steps to try to eliminate alternative explanations for the disparities seen in news coverage, but it is always possible that the findings are at least somewhat due to another cause. For example, the Stage II regression analysis controlled for socioeconomic status, but only broadly in terms of local median household income. Perhaps a more granular measure would prove more consequential in future analyses. This analysis also tables the issue of physical attractiveness, which could quite possibly play a major role in the phenomenon. For example, if being attractive is a prerequisite for status as a damsel in distress, which some commenters have alleged, then an entirely new set of concerns comes to the forefront. It also would be valuable to compare measures of physical attractiveness across gender to see if the standards differ. If, for example, physical attractiveness is more important in determining newsworthiness of missing women than missing men, Stillman's concerns about the exploitation of women's bodies become even more relevant. Physical attractiveness and race might also interact in significant ways. Alternatively, maybe circumstances of the abduction are crucially important in determining newsworthiness. Do missing white girls and women happen to find themselves the victims of abductions with unique or newsworthy characteristics more than other types of abductees? If so, that trend could also explain at least some of the disparities.

Future studies could also add depth in other ways to the current analysis. More research investigating the effect of media coverage on police investigation outcomes would help clarify some of the tangible consequences of coverage disparities. For instance, there is some evidence suggesting that media attention on an open criminal case leads to increased speed and success in police investigation of that case, but further scholarship in that area is still needed.

However, even when taking these limitations into account, the findings of this study remain persuasive. The race and gender disparities are evident across multiple sources and using multiple methods of analysis. The disparities are also quite large and, for the most part, consistent with the differences predicted by MWWS. As always, future research that can replicate or more precisely test the hypotheses of this article would help reaffirm its conclusions. Still, the results of the analyses here help confirm that Missing White Woman Syndrome is a real, empirical phenomenon. Based on these results and in the words of Charles Ramsey, it is safe to say that “something is wrong here.”

Law and Science Fellow, Northwestern University.

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