Explainer

White Ribbon Day: why some murder cases get less media attention - and what is missing white woman syndrome?

Some murders and violent attacks on women make the headlines much more than others

Every hour in 2021 more than five women were killed by their partners or family members across the world - a figure from a United Nations study which has made headlines.

But often there are cases of murder and violent attacks on certain groups of women which make the headlines more often than others - so much so that a phrase has been coined to describe it. In the US the case of missing Gabby Petito, who it was discovered was murdered by her boyfriend Brian Laundrie, dominated the news and was a constant fixture on search in Google.

In the UK Sarah Everard’s murder by Wayne Couzens not only made national and international press, but prompted widespread vigils and protests. At the time of writing, there is still ongoing Google search interest in both Sarah Everard’s case in the UK and Gabby Petito in the US.

Yet other cases have seen far less coverage in the mainstream media. And according to new research by the Columbia Journalism Review young, white women are likely to receive more press coverage than those of the same ethnicity who are older. And likewise a Black woman would also generate less coverage, according to their research.

People around the world are marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and White Ribbon Day on Friday (24 November). NationalWorld spoke to criminologist Professor Elizabeth Yardley, who explained why some female victims of crime can receive more sympathy than others who have suffered similar fates.

What is ‘missing white woman syndrome’?

‘Missing white woman syndrome’ is a term which is used often by social scientists and media commentators about the media coverage of missing-person cases involving young, attractive, white, upper middle class women or girls, compared to the relative lack of attention towards missing women who were not white, of lower socio-economic groups, or men and boys.

Gwen Ifill, an American news anchor, is credited as the person who came up with the phrase almost 20 years ago. In 2004 she told the Unity: Journalists of Color journalism conference: “I call it the missing white woman search syndrome. If there is a missing white woman you’re going to cover that every day.”

However, it has been used not just to highlight the disparity in reporting of missing person cases, but for violent crimes also. And it has also been used to highlight inequalities in coverage not just in the US, but also the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.

Some cases of where women are attacked or murdered seem to receive more media coverage than others.

New research by the CJR found that little has changed over the last 20 years, and that a young, white female who lives in a big city would receive more coverage. It has developed a tool where people can test their own newsworthiness in order to highlight the problem.

For example, the tool calculates that a 21-year-old white woman from New York would generate 67 news articles if she went missing. If she was 41 years old however her case would prompt 19 articles. But if the 21-year-old lived in a smaller city, for example Fairfield, Ohio her case would generate 60 articles, and this would drop to 17 for a 41-year-old.

In comparison a Black woman aged 21 living in New York would generate 28 news stories, and if she was 20 years older that would drop to just eight articles. If she lived in Fairfield as a 21-year-old she would generate 26 articles, and aged 41 it would be seven.

Criminologist Professor Liz Yardley.

Why do some cases receive more attention than others?

Elizabeth Yardley, Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University, said cases that are covered by the media enter the public consciousness as a result, while others continue to be unknown. “It’s not so much that these cases resonate more with the public, it’s that they receive more coverage in mainstream media, therefore the public are more aware of them.

“Fortunately, murder is a rare crime so most people will never have direct experience of it. However, because of this, people rely upon mainstream media for information about these types of crime.”

Professor Yardley also points to a ‘hierarchy’ among victims, with some cases being viewed more sympathetically: “There is a concept of the ‘ideal victim’ in criminology, which argues that when some people become the victims of crime, they receive considerably more sympathy and compassion than other people who become victims of similar crimes.

“When we look at female victims, we tend to see a hierarchy emerging. Women who are attacked by men who are strangers to them will receive more sympathy than those attacked by men they know – particularly men they are in an intimate relationship with.

“Women engaging in ‘appropriate femininity’ will also be seen in a more favourable light – as such, women who are attacked whilst intoxicated on a night out will not be accorded the same victim status as women attacked during the day engaging in activities considered more ‘wholesome’.”

She added: The coverage that missing and murdered women receive in mainstream media tends to be a reflection of wider social inequalities linked to class and ethnicity.”

On the question of whether the tendancy for some cases to receive more coverage than others has worsened over time, Professor Yardley said she would argue it is “about the same” when it comes to the mainstream media, but added that social media has helped raise awareness of cases.

She added: “With the rise of social media, we are seeing an increased awareness of cases we would not usually come to hear about through mainstream media. Often, the friends and families of missing or murdered women will raise awareness of their loved one’s case on social media and successfully lobby mainstream media to cover the case this way.”