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.

References

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>    

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