Hannah Graham And The ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ In America

Posted by: Cassie Myers

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If you’ve read the news in the last five weeks chances are you’ve heard about the disappearance of Hannah Graham. The 18-year-old University of Virginia student has been all over the news since she went missing on September 13.

Have you heard of Tyrell Alexander, Kaitlan Coan or Tong Shao? All three were reported missing around the same time as Graham, yet these names are unfamiliar to most. There’s a reason why and it’s called Missing White Woman Syndrome.

This syndrome claims that the media is more likely to cover a story on a young missing white woman than on someone of a different gender, race or age. In other words you aren’t hearing about Alexander, Coan and Shao because they are male, black and/or Asian.

Anyone with the CNN app has been getting frequent updates on the Graham case, but Shao, a Chinese international student at Iowa State University who was reported missing on September 17, has remained out of the headlines. Nine days later the 20-year-old’s body was found in a trunk in Iowa City. Coverage of the story was minimal and locally driven.

Perhaps the intense speculation of Graham’s disappearance has to do with the suspicious activity leading up to it, but the statistics on missing persons in the United States are staggering and it puts such coverage into question.

In 2013 the National Crime Information Center recorded 627,911 missing person cases. 462,567 of those cases involved those under 18 and 14,500 of those were categorized as involuntary or endangered. If more of these cases were widely publicized maybe tragedies such as the one involving Shao could be avoided.

There’s no right way to balance so many cases and certainly a person’s value can’t be measured against another, but it seems apparent that there is a gap in media coverage in these kinds of situations. What do you think is the best way to handle missing person cases? How is the media supposed to decide which cases deserve national coverage?

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13 responses to “Hannah Graham And The ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ In America

  1. This is such an interesting and eye-opening topic! I feel that this ‘syndrome’ can and has happened with other cases or situations. It is happening right now as we speak, with Ebola. West Africa has been battling Ebola for the past couple years and hundreds have died but as soon as a white American shows even the littlest of signs the media is in an uproar! And now that I think about it, I’m not sure whose fault it is: the media or the public?

    Missing person reports are a difficult subject to handle. I think if there is set of rules or criteria for missing person cases for media to follow all the important cases will be broadcast. The rules could include something like only broadcasting victims who have been missing for a certain amount of days. I’m not exactly sure but there must be a way for all important missing person cases to be broadcast!

    • I love your point about a similar thing happening with Ebola. We as people and a country have a tendency to only take interest in something once it might have an affect on us. We take interest in missing cases when they are similar to us because its’s easier to imagine the horror of the situation despite the fact that it’s the same no matter race, gender or age.

  2. I’m glad you wrote about this, but it’s so hard to decide whose case should be publicized and whose shouldn’t. I’m sure there was probably mostly local coverage on a lot of missing persons cases, but I think it probably also depends on how long the person was missing for. It makes me cringe to think that race could possibly play a role in who gets coverage if they go missing, because as you said, nobody’s life should be prioritized over another’s for any reason. In terms of national coverage, I think the suspicious events leading up to their disappearance probably plays a role because it adds interest. Unfortunately, the social status and influence of the family also probably plays a role. No missing persons case is probably exactly the same and they shouldn’t be treated as such. The media needs to treat the families and individuals with respect and with them make the decision on the appropriate coverage.

  3. This was an issue my hometown struggled with several years ago. In 2007, a white, middle-class, 18-year-old girl was kidnapped outside our local Target. Around the same time, another 18-year-old girl disappeared. The second one was mixed race and from a lower income area. While the first case received hour-by-hour media coverage, many Kansas-Citians never learned about the second girl. While it’s unfortunate and unfair, I think the media chooses to cover certain cases based on shock-factor. When a rich white girl goes missing, more audience members tune in. I agree with your post in that more cases should receive fair and equal media attention.

    • It’s interesting that you had a situation like this in your hometown. It’s incredibly sad to thing that a missing person can somehow go under the radar and have so few people hear about it. It’s unfortunate, but your right that the media is going to cover the story that will get them the biggest ratings.

  4. Wow. This is a great post! I was at the gym when I first heard about the Hannah Graham story. CNN discussed her story for at least 15 minutes, and the entire time the story aired they played a picture collage of her. I thought the amount of pictures they showed was a bit excessive, but like Lauren said, it’s for the shock-value. I remember thinking how sad it was that she was missing, and the pictures helped to propagate that feeling. As morbid as it sounds, more people are interested in following the story about a white, innocent-looking girl than about someone that is a minority.

    I think the media could do a lot more to cover stories that focus on minority groups. However, in order to change, the media has cover stories that aren’t just about the ratings and are more about raising awareness.

  5. I agree with what Hannah had to say–the media has to cover more stories to raising awareness and care less about shock value and ratings. It is sad to see how unequal the reporting can be on these different stories, and it is difficult to know who or what to cover when there are so many kidnappings and tragedies happening all over the country. I think one way of changing this could be showing multiple stories in the allotted time slots the media uses to cover one. Giving a few names and photos could help raise awareness, and that’s really what is needed. Local news is a great source to find these smaller stories, but I think there could be a change nationally to help give more people a chance to be found.

    • I really like your idea of taking an allotted amount of time and showing as many cases as possible. It might not make a huge difference, but at least it gives people an extra shot at identifying something or someone. Even just an extra bit of awareness could help find someone.

  6. After reading your post, I have come to a realization of how true this topic truly is. I know so much about the Hannah Graham case, and she disappeared hundreds of miles away. But I never even heard of Shao going missing, and that took place at Iowa State which is barely 40 minutes away. I feel as though the Graham case was more publicized due to the fact that she was a well liked, popular girl that hundreds knew, as well as the mysterious circumstances. Whereas Shao, is an international student who was not so well known. It is sad to me that some people get more attention than others, and things get swept under the rug the minute something crazier pops up. Missing white woman syndrome is so true, and I know that after reading this, I am going to realized it more and more when I watch the news. I wish there was a way to keep the media more balanced, and more focused on multiple things, rather than one.

  7. This is such a good topic to bring up–I agree that there’s a large gap between media coverage when it comes to cases involving race. Last year I took a class about race discrimination across the world, and it’s astounding how much relevance we put on certain cases or situations based on what the color skin of the person involved is. I agree with Hannah that as unfair and unfortunate as it is, people in the U.S. are more concerned for privileged white individuals than members of a minority. I think this is a huge problem that has a long time to wait still until it is treated with the equality it deserves, but it all has to start with how the media covers these cases. I hope that this is an issue that can begin to be resolved in the next several decades, and hope that young reporters will be able to bring cases involving minorities to light.

    • It’s so true that there is a certain gap about what the media covers and race has a lot to do with it. They want their news to be relatable to their viewers and sometimes that means ignoring certain stories for others. It definitely makes you wonder how much you’re missing in what’s going on in the world.

  8. I found this topic very interesting. I’m glad you wrote about this because it is not one that many think about, even myself. When I look at news I just read to find out what is happening, it doesn’t even occur to me to think about what race I am reading about.I feel as though unless there is something big, like the Trayvon Martin case, it does not make headlines like other articles dealing with the white race.I understand that the media can’t cover every missing person case, but they also shouldn’t be so choosey with what they are writing about. Lately it seems like it is always a missing white male/female, but that is not the case.

    • I think you’re right that race is brought up mostly in cases like Trayvon Martins. Unfortunately, it seems to play a role in a lot of what the media publishes. When I read the news I don’t usually think about race either, but with all the incidents that have occurred lately I’m working to be more aware of how the media uses race as a factor in their stories.

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