Recently, National Public Radio ran a story about coverage of what they call “women-in-peril” stories—that is, stories that focus on crimes against young white women, particularly those involving abduction. Jaycee Dugard and Elizabeth Smart, both kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and held captive for long periods, were the focus of intense media attention. ABC News appears to be particularly emphasizing this type of coverage; they scored an exclusive interview with Dugard and have hired Smart as a contributor; her first appearance included a discussion of Dugard’s case.
Of course, no one would deny that both Dugard and Smart underwent horrifying ordeals, and it’s not surprising that their stories drew the public’s attention. However, the media frenzy over these cases reflects a focus that has gotten a name among media critics: Missing White Woman Syndrome. That is, media coverage tends to be higher when victims are young, White, conventionally-attractive women. Research indicates that crimes with white female victims do indeed receive disproportionate coverage. For instance, in a study of local newspaper coverage of 640 homicides in Columbus, Ohio, Richard Lundman found that murders involving a white female victim were more likely to be covered and received higher profile coverage, such as front-page stories. This pattern held even when he controlled for other factors that might influence newsworthiness, such as type of weapon used, age of those involved, neighborhood, and even how uncommon the murder is in terms of the gender, race, and social class of the victim and perpetrator.
The disproportionate coverage that crimes such as the abduction of Elizabeth Smart generate can lead to distortions in our perceptions of risk. While they are shocking, the crimes perpetrated against Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard are, in fact, quite rare. And middle-class white women are at very low risk of being the victims of violent crime in general.
But exposure to news coverage of these types of crimes may increase levels of fear among white women. Researchers at Florida State University looked at how TV coverage of the sexual assault and murder of two teenage girls in Houston affected viewers’ fear of crime, gathering their data in the immediate aftermath of the media frenzy about violent crime, gang violence, and related topics. They found that the only group whose fear of crime was influenced by watching TV stories about the murders was middle-aged white women. Non-white women, and all men, despite being objectively more likely to be victimized, did not become more fearful. The researchers suggest that white women substitute media coverage for direct experience of victimization. That is, generally research indicates that a person’s prior experience with crime (whether as a victim or knowledge of someone who was) is a strong predictor of their fear of becoming a victim; if you’ve been victimized once, it makes sense that you’d be more likely to think it could happen again. But white women who watch the news see a disproportionate number of white female victims, leading to a perception that white women are in much more danger than they actually are. The message here is that media coverage has real-world implications; the TV and print media stories we see can influence our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. And insofar as white female victims are deemed most newsworthy, media coverage can skew our perceptions of how risky our lives are and which groups are most in need of increased protection from criminal behavior.
Chiricos, T., S. Eschholz, & M. Gertz. (1997). Crime, news and fear of crime: toward an identification of audience effects. Social Problems 44(3), 342-357.
Lundman, R.J. (2003). The newsworthiness and selection bias in news about murder: comparative and relative effects of novelty and race and gender typifications on newspaper coverage of homicide. Sociological Forum, 18(3), 357-386.