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"Missing white women syndrome" is a sign of what's wrong with national media

October 24, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
You've probably heard something about the case of Lisa Irwin, the baby girl in Kansas City, Mo., who went missing a few weeks ago. You could hardly have missed it since her picture was on the cover of "People" magazine last week and morning talk shows and national news reports have had updates on the story every few days.

Lisa's parents, Deborah Bradley and Jeremy Irwin, claim that someone broke into their house and kidnapped Lisa while her mother and two older brothers were sleeping. Police are reportedly suspicious of the story because there were some inconsistencies and Bradley had reportedly been drinking that night, but so far there has been no sign of Lisa dead or alive.

You probably have not heard about another little girl who went missing a few weeks ago. Jhessye (pronounced Jessie) Shockley, a 5-year-old girl from Glendale, Ariz., vanished at 5 p.m. Oct. 11 while she was being babysat by her older siblings. Searches within a three mile radius of her home have turned up no sign of Jhessye, whose name some sources spell as Jahessye, and police say she was probably kidnapped. Arizona media have covered the case and it sounds as though Jhessye, like Lisa, has a troubled family background. However, her case has not gotten nearly as much attention from national media as Lisa's.

The difference between the news coverage of these two similar cases is sadly all too familiar: missing white woman syndrome. Lisa is a blonde, blue-eyed white little girl; Jhessye is black.

We saw much the same thing here in North Dakota with the abduction and murder of Dru Sjodin, a blonde, blue-eyed college student. Her tragic story garnered far more attention than that of a missing, young Native American man who was missing at the same time and whose name and fate I can, sadly enough, no longer remember because it didn't get much play in the media.

If a victim is young, white, female, pretty and, preferably, thin, blonde and blue-eyed and from a middle class family, she's a lot more likely to make the national news. You'd hardly guess from the coverage that minorities, old people, fat people, developmentally disabled people and unattractive people of a variety of backgrounds are missing too and are in just as much need of media attention that might help bring them home.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, news editors everywhere have decided that they can get more viewers if they play up the missing white child and think that people will identify more with her story than with Jhessye's. I'm not sure that's true, if it ever was, since there are likely just as many if not more black and Hispanic viewers of some of these shows than there are white viewers, especially in some markets. Viewers will see their daughters, nieces and sisters in both Lisa and Jhessye and think "there but for the grace of God go I." Most decent human beings should be able to do that regardless of what race the missing child is.

I don't know what has happened to either of these little girls. I hope they are still alive and will be brought home to their families and their kidnappers are punished. If either or both are dead, I hope police will find out what happened to them and that those who took them are punished.

What I would really like to see is an end to the evil that is missing white women syndrome, but I suppose that's a pipe dream.


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