The Missing White Woman Syndrome

Mohamed Eltayeb

According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons (NamUS) database, over 600,000 people go missing in the US every year. Yet, despite the vast figure, a majority of missing persons cases are solved. Still, thousands upon thousands of cases go cold, leaving loved ones in disarray. The fundamental problem is the racial bias in media attention, otherwise known as the missing white girl syndrome. 

The tragic disappearance of Gabby Petito has captured the world for weeks, becoming a household name, similarly to the case of Caylee Anthony, Holly Bobo, and Mollie Tibbetts, who garnered an excessive level of media coverage which clouded the stories of countless women of color who have gone missing.

Statistically proven

Missing white woman syndrome was coined by the late Gwen Ifill, an American journalist, who used the term to describe the media and the public’s obsession when white women go missing. Remember David Fincher’s critically acclaimed Gone Girl, where an unsatisfied wife goes missing, intentionally raising a wave of extreme public and media attention? Unfortunately, that enthusiasm and effort to find white women like Gabby Petito isn’t matched for people of color.

Sociologist Zach Sommers published a 2013 study proving that the missing white woman syndrome is accurate and can be statistically proven. After cross-referencing the FBI’s database of missing persons with coverage from the Star-Tribune, the Chicago Tribune, CNN, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sommers concludes through his study that the missing white woman syndrome is “an empirical fact for abductees of all ages.” Furthermore, even though men go missing at comparable rates, women and girls are seen by society “as victims that need saving.” Specifically, white women and girls are seen as “universal victims with whom all viewers and readers can identify.” Moreover, Sommers adds that “Their outsized presence in the news as crime victims implies that they are inherently good and innocent.”

Everything is about race.

So what does this all mean? Not only are missing people of color less likely to appear in the news compared to their white counterparts, but coverage for white women and girls is more enriched by the media as it fulfills a “damsels in distress” criteria. Zach Sommers’s research isn’t alone in linking coverage of missing persons to race. Criminologists Danielle Slakoff and Henry Fradella published a 2019 study examining years of coverage in several different US newspapers to find that white missing women and girls received more coverage than missing Black women. Additionally, a 2020 study conducted by the University of Wyoming found that missing persons differed between Indigenous people and white people despite Indigenous people going missing by far higher proportions. Indigenous people were more likely to have an article written about them after they were found to be dead, unlike white people who were being covered while still being missing.

Telling their own stories

Launched by journalist Erika Marie Rivers, Our Black Girls was founded as a grassroots platform to recognize and highlight the untold stories of thousands of missing Black women and girls. The platform, which has a database collection starting in the 1910s to today, sets to bring awareness and stop these narratives from happening to another victim. Rivers has voiced her frustration as the platform has failed to be advertised by social media platforms. “It appears to be a “political issue” that goes against their policies.” Like Rivers, organizations like the Black and Missing Foundation work towards the same goal of shedding light on countless tales of Black missing persons.

There is real power in shared movements; if you want to be a part of the solution, elevate the voices of groups that are marginalized. If you know any other organizations like Our Black Girls or Black and Missing Foundation, contact us, and we’ll be sure to include them in our article.

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