Missing White Woman Syndrome

The mainstream media play a vital role in constructing certain endangered young women as valuable ‘front-page-victims’, while dismissing others as disposable’ (Stillman, 2007).

We need not look far from home to witness this phenomenon with two relatively recent Australian examples including the news coverage surrounding the rape and murder of ABC journalist Jill Meagher as opposed to the coverage surrounding the rape and murder of Tracy Connolly, a Melbourne sex worker.  Current news values arguably perpetuate stereotypes of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ female victims.

The disproportionate amount of media coverage for certain victims has been evidenced over a number of decades throughout Australia and the US and has been coined by academics as ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’. When a beautiful young white woman is killed — Jill Meagher and Reeva Steenkamp being the latest tragic examples — the media seemingly show much more interest than when the victim is male, of a lower class, of a particular ethnicity or apparently more deserved of their fate. According to US journalist Eugene Robinson ‘It’s the meta-narrative of something seen as precious and delicate being snatched away, defiled, destroyed by evil forces that lurk in the shadows, just outside the bedroom window. It’s whiteness under siege. It’s innocence and optimism crushed by cruel reality. It’s a flower smashed by a rock’ (Robinson, 2005).

However, as horrendous and undeserving as these cases may be, the disproportionate coverage of such crimes has the potential to distort society’s perceptions of risk. I will also examine how exposure to news coverage of these types of crimes can potentially increase levels of fear among young white women of their safety in public spaces (Sharp, 2011). Indeed much of the commentary surrounding Jill Meagher’s murder, as opposed to that of Tracy Connolly, was based on the ideology that ‘it could have been me.’ Whereas as a society we seem more likely to dismiss the crimes against a sex worker in the sense that ‘women like that’ are so far removed from our everyday.

Regardless of the extensive research into missing white women syndrome and the news media that continue to embrace the stereotype, it remains an example of gender inequality in our media. The idea of a damsel in distress as an ‘ideal’ female victim continues to grab headlines.  We see another distraught family, another shattered workplace, another city in horror. We don’t see the hundreds of other families whose loved ones have met the same fate but don’t comfortably fit into traditional cookie cutter news values. Those deemed not important enough to intrude into our living rooms during the prime time broadcast.


Ford, Clementine. (2013). ‘How did we let Adrian Bayley happen?’. DailyLife.com.au. Available at: <http://www.dailylife.com.au/new s-and-views/dl-opinion/how-did- we-let-adrian-bayley-happen- 20130613-2o67f.html>

Iaccino, L. (2014). What is ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’?. [online] Available at: <http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/what-missing-white-woman-syndrome-1441153>    

Rizvi, J. (2013). Jill Meagher’s murderer sentenced to life in prison.  Mamamia [online] Available at: <http://www.mamamia.com.au/news/jill-meagherhow-can-this-be/&gt;

Slakoff, D.C.. (2013), Newsworthiness and the “Missing White Woman Syndrome”, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing.

Robinson, E. (2005).  (White) Women We Love. The Washington Post [online] Available at: <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/09/AR2005060901729.html>    


History Repeating?

The end of the world as we know it is coming. The internet has taken over. The 24hour news cycle has murdered traditional journalism. It’s history on repeat. As discussed by Tom Rosenstiels’ TED talk The Future of Journalism, the notion that people are turning away from news is not in itself true. He believes that instead, journalism is entering a ‘new enlightenment’. Mediums have adapted. Radio did not kill the newspaper. Television did not kill the radio. Online journalism will not kill traditional journalism.

Today news is on demand. We can get the news we want, when we want it. We are in control of our own learning. Thus Rosenstiel argues that we are to a greater degree than was ever true before, able to determine what we know and how we think about the world around us essentially making us more democratic citizens. Previously we had responsible gatekeepers force feeding us the news they thought we should know. People trusted them because they were a renowned brand with a good track record. The media told us what to think. Today news is on demand – we can get the news we want when we want it. We are in control of our own learning. We are not being told what to think, we are determining it for ourselves.

Overall it seems that the disruption caused by digital technologies in journalism is good for consumers. However it is, evidently, bad for media companies. Media companies are no longer the trusted gatekeepers of fact and fiction. We have become the producers. It cannot be debated that journalism is in a financial state of chaos as a result of the collapse of the advertising model, however it is not all doom and gloom for the future of news as a whole. Rosenstiel argues that ‘this disruption holds they key to journalisms own reformation’. It has happened before and we can do it again, embracing change and adopting technologies that overall enhance the quality of news and journalism has far greater benefits than desperately trying to salvage an industry that is rapidly losing face.


Art as Journalism

‘Journalism is the interface we use to understand how things work and affect us, and it forms the base for public knowledge in science, politics and many other fields’ (Cramerotti, 2011). If this is the function of journalism, then it only seems fitting that as a society we see relevance in the increasing presence of the journalistic method in contemporary art as they combine to create new experiences and tell new stories.

An example of an amalgamation of traditional journalism and art is Inside Out: Iran. The Inside Out Project is an ongoing global multimedia, participatory art project started by JR in 2011. The concept of Inside Out revolves around giving the unknown an identity: a name and a face. The various projects that have taken place all over the world have allowed ordinary people to turn global thoughts and prejudices ‘inside out’ (hence the name). While Saman Arbabi was working on a video report about JR’s Inside Out Project for ‘On Ten,’ a weekly Persian-language political satire show, he learned that even though 135 000 people worldwide have participated in JR’s project, only one of them was from Iran. Deciding to create his own version of JR’s street art, Arbabi used portraits of 40 people killed in the uprisings following the 2009 Iranian presidential election. The images occupied a 20-foot by 50-foot area on the well-known Bushwick Art Park in Brooklyn, USA.


Inside Out Iran carries a potent message about identity: challenging Western attitudes and perceptions of ordinary Iranians, not just extremists, or those featured on brief international news clips, but the ‘everyday-Iranian’ like the 40 portraits Arbabi selected for this project. Although his work could easily be dismissed as just a piece of New York street art, it communicates ideas that could easily be written in a dissertation or newspaper column, and instead portrays them with real emotion, demonstrating the power of visual impact in art as opposed to traditional journalistic mediums. It’s not just a work of art; it is a collaborative form of media, dependent on not just the artist’s views, but also the way in which the audience receives it, and the conversation it creates about our own values and culture. In this way it should be considered as a journalistic piece, an example of Cramerotti’s ‘aesthetic journalism’, a creative way to shape opinion and form an understanding of the world around us.



Blog.ted.com. 2013. INSIDE OUT turns images into global action from the North Pole to Malawi | TED Blog. [online] Available at: http://blog.ted.com/2013/08/01/inside-out-turns-images-into-global-action-from-the-north-pole-to-malawi

Cramerotti, Alfredo, 2011, “What is Aesthetic Journalism,” in Cramerotti, Alfredo,
Aesthetic Journalism: How to Inform Without Informing, Intellect, London

Steinhauer, J. 2013. Remembering Iran’s Fight for Democracy in Brooklyn. Hyperallergic, [blog] 27th June 2013, Available at: http://hyperallergic.com

YouTube. 2013. Saman Arbabi explains Inside Out: Faces Of Iran project in Bushwick. [online] Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EpZbQKSIYO4 /74354/remembering-irans-fight-for-democracy-in-brooklyn/