Comment | Missing white female syndrome

The name Madeleine McCann has exploded back onto our front pages in recent weeks, when the Metropolitan Police reopened her case over six years after her original disappearance.  Following last month’s carefully stage-managed appearance of her parents, Leicester medics Kate and Gerry McCann, on BBC Crimewatch, Britain’s media outlets have reignited their interest in what is arguably one of the country’s most high-profile missing persons’ cases.

One view would be to applaud what seems an excellent effort on her parents’ part to revitalise the search for their daughter, and keep her face in the public eye in order to find out what really happened to her. However, the more sinister reasoning for such repeatedly vast media attention is the theory which has become known as ‘missing white female syndrome’. This states that the media only takes an interest in, or at least allows its coverage to be dominated by, young, white, women, from a mainly middle or upper class background. This theory that having the ‘right’ race, class and sex are the main prerequisites for media assistance in finding your missing family member is a pretty sickening thought, but sadly is quite possibly true.

When you think about it, it is hard to think of any high-profile missing persons cases featuring men in recent years. In addition to Maddy, Holly Wells, the names of Jessica Chapman, Milly Dowler, Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight and Gina de Jesus in Cleveland come easily to mind. This presents a far from accurate picture, since in the US in 2010, 355,000 women and 337,000 men went missing. If you relied solely on media coverage to reach an estimate of that figure you would take at least a couple of zeros off the end of the men’s number.

To add to that, during the case in Cleveland, Amanda Berry attracted twice as much media attention compared to Gina de Jesus, again suggesting a prejudicial representation. Reasoning suggested for the gender bias is that the media loves to focus on the damsel in distress concept which statistically attracts the biggest audience, reflecting a shameful aspect of the public’s subconscious.

The racial prejudice seems a disgusting hangover from a time most hoped was long gone, at least in this country, where non-white people were thought unworthy of the same level of media attention. Because of this disproportionate image painted by the media, the perception of victimhood becomes their own construction, which the public blindly buy into. The worst case scenario is epitomised by the Stephen Lawrence tragedy, where the national media were very slow to acknowledge that an innocent black man was the victim of a brutal and racially motivated attack.

The class element of the theory is another disappointingly accurate point. Madeleine’s two middle class, medic parents made for a great headline, contrastingly when Shannon Matthews went missing her divorced, unemployed mother and boyfriend attracted vastly reduced attention from the papers. Nine days after Madeleine’s disappearance the press stories published totalled 465, in the same time period Shannon had inspired only 242. Once Madeleine’s disappearance had lasted two weeks, the total rewards offered (including sums from Simon Cowell, Richard Branson, Philip Green) had reached £2.6 million, in the same time Shannon’s safe return was valued at £25,000. The statistics are hard to argue with, and the truth they convey is a haunting one.

Carrie Smith

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