Media and the Missing


Lejla Softic considers the impact of ethnic and cultural bias in media and policy responses to conflict and the issue of missing persons.

On 22 March this year, at least 31 people were killed by bombs that were detonated in the airport and metro in Brussels. There was a global expression of sympathy, outrage and support for the people of the Belgian capital. However, in March alone, six countries across the world experienced brutal terrorist attacks: Belgium, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey.

An article published by the US newspaper The Nation in January this year showed how terrorist attacks in Western countries receive far more media coverage than attacks in non-Western countries. Not only is coverage less extensive, it is qualitatively different.

The Nation article focused on media reports about three attacks in November 2015: Beirut (November 12), Baghdad (November 13) and Paris (November 13). Islamic State claimed responsibility for all three blasts, which killed a total of nearly 200 people.

According to The Nation, the numbers are instructive:

  • On the day of the Baghdad attack, 392 articles about it appeared online.
  • On the day of the Beirut attack, 1,292 articles about it appeared online.
  • On the day of the Paris attack, more than 21,000 articles about it appeared online.

The Nation article also found that terror incidents in non-Western countries were often written about in a detached style, while if Westerners were involved, coverage would focus on them and their story, lending a more “human” angle.

While the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels have rightly inspired expressions of global sympathy and solidarity, residents of other cities and countries that have been struck by similar tragedies can only ask, “What about us?” as their suffering has remained largely ignored by the world. [1]

It is important to mention that as world media focused on the terror attacks in Paris which killed 17, the killing of 2,000 people in Baga, Nigeria, by Boko Haram, which happened at the same time, went largely unreported. Since the beginning of this year a series of terrorist incidents in Nigeria have resulted in appalling casualties, but these have attracted little attention form media outside the country.

The issue of missing and disappeared persons (MDPs) is also subject to selective reporting. Coverage of MDP cases involving young, middle class, Caucasian women became so commonplace in the US in the mid-2000s that Gwen Ifill, a journalist with the US Public Broadcasting Service, speaking at a media convention in 2004, coined the phrase “missing white woman syndrome”. Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin referred to the trend in June 2005 as “missing pretty girl syndrome” and “damsel in distress syndrome”.

The assumption, supported by media ratings, is that white viewers may not connect with stories unless they see themselves as possible victims.[2] The phenomenon is somewhat commoner in the US then in other Western countries.[3]

Sarah Stillman published an essay in a 2007 issue of the sociology journal Gender and Development,  in which she accuses the media of giving audiences a “subtle instruction manual” on how to empathize with certain missing persons victims over others: “These messages are powerful: they position certain sub-groups of women — often white, wealthy and conventionally attractive — as deserving of our collective resources, while making the marginalization and victimization of other groups of women, such as low-income women of color, seem natural.”

According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, people of color accounted for nearly 40 percent of national missing persons entries in the United States in 2014. However, recent studies show that, of the hundreds of thousands of people who go missing each year, young white women receive an overwhelming amount of news coverage compared to those of other races, ages, and genders.

In Canada, activist Kristen Gilchrist conducted a comparative study of local press coverage of three missing aboriginal women from Saskatchewan and three missing white women from Ontario. In the 2010 study Newsworthy Victims? for the Feminist Media Studies journal, Gilchrist found that aboriginal women were mentioned in 53 articles compared with 187 articles mentioning white women. The conclusion was that saturation coverage of the missing white women had left little room for coverage of the aboriginal women. “The invisibility of missing aboriginal women from the news landscape depends on the hyper-visibility of missing white women,” Gilchrist wrote.[4]

There is clearly a disparity in the way in which media cover issues related to terrorism, conflict and missing persons. This not only reflects common prejudices; it has a direct, often decisive impact on policymaking. When a terrorist attack is the subject of 21,000 news reports, it most likely follows that resources will be allocated to finding the perpetrators, and identifying the victims and supporting their families. The question then is what happens to the victims and their families in under-reported cases? What access do they have to justice and support?

Regardless of the age, race, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnic or national origin of the disappeared, there are numerous bereaved friends and family members whose lives are forever changed by acts of atrocity. It is essential, therefore, to support efforts that allow all survivors of atrocity equal access to rights.

In its work, ICMP strives to ensure the cooperation of all states in accounting for MDP’s regardless of the circumstances of their disappearance.

[1] Maketeb, Haris. 2016. Selective sympathy: Why some terror attacks receive more attention than others. Asian Correspondent

[2] Moody, Mia. The Invisible Damsel Differences in How. Baylor University.

[3] Earle, Sarah, Komaromy, Carol and Bartholomew, Caroline. Death and Dying. London: SAGE Publications, 2009. E-book.

[4] Justin Joffe. Race and Gender: Media Bias in Coverage of Missing Persons.