APRIL, 2021

By Lucy Hart
Coordinator of Research and Capacity-Building

According to Missing People, a UK based charity whose mission is to reunite missing children and adults with their loved ones, someone in the UK goes missing every 90 seconds. Many of these people become statistics, their names unspoken.

The disquieting reality is that the missing person cases attracting the greatest media attention tend to involve white, middle-class women. Racism pervades society and instructs who and how someone gets media coverage. So let us consider how intersectionality – the overlapping of multiple oppressions (race, gender, class and sexuality, beyond a single categorical axis[1]) bears relevance to this media coverage. The framework of intersectionality exposes how media coverage of missing person cases goes beyond gender inequality. It is about systemic racism and structural social injustice.

…‘missing white woman syndrome’…describes the comparative attention to missing person cases of white woman in the mainstream media to coverage of missing people of colour.

In the UK, with relevance globally, the current discourse about women’s safety is multifaceted: a culmination of events. The alarming rise in domestic violence during the covid-19 pandemic[2] and the UN Women UK report which found that 71% of women of all ages in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space[3] were the backdrop for Sarah Everard’s kidnap and murder in March 2021. Sarah was a white, female, university-educated, middle-class woman kidnapped and murdered in South London. She was last seen in Clapham, an area of South London popular with young professionals. Her case shook the British public and provided a stark reminder of our society’s proclivity for violence as well as women’s vulnerability. It triggered an outpouring of testimony on social media and in the press: women spoke of holding their keys ready to unlock the front door, pretending to be on the phone, crossing the road for safety, avoiding certain routes, and running to get home. All ways for women to navigate a dangerous world.

These statistics are shocking and Sarah’s murder deplorable, but we must also look towards those at the margins: those who remain unrepresented, those who are already and always vulnerable, those who are missing yet remain invisible in the media, in our society. Those who have become mere statistics.

Women like Blessing Olusegun. Blessing, a young, black care worker, was found deceased on a beach in East Sussex in September 2020. The cause of death: unexplained. Her case: scarcely reported in the traditional press and social media. Sarah Everard’s murder brought new attention to the police investigation on Blessing, but her case is of equal importance. Blessing matters, too.

Women like Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry. In September 2020, sisters Nicole and Bibaa were found deceased in Fryent Country Park in Wembley, London. Their mother, Mina Smallman, believes that police made assumptions about her daughters because of their race and class. Bibaa, for example, was a black woman living on a council estate, and therefore “deserved less attention”. When police failed to respond, Mina Smallman organised her own search party for her daughters. Their bodies were eventually found by Nicole’s boyfriend, not the police. Unlike the missing person coverage of Sarah Everard, press attention about Bibaa’s and Nicole’s disappearances was minimal and only augmented when the women’s bodies were found.

We are proud to count as clients several journalism organisations who investigate systematic racism and social injustice.

The contrast in media coverage between these four women is stark and is illustrative of what has been termed ‘missing white woman syndrome’. This term describes the comparative attention to missing person cases of white woman in the mainstream media to coverage of missing people of colour. Every missing person deserves the same level of media coverage and the same rigour and commitment in their police investigation, but this is not the reality. Media coverage remains heavily influenced by race, by class systems and by money.

This is about race, this is about class. The cases of these four women raise wider questions about societal injustice. Does media coverage simply reflect underlying societal biases? What responsibility do we have as readers? Are the police to blame? These important questions are wider than this article can answer on its own. But they are questions that deserve answering

The case of Sarah Everard can be a catalyst to answer such questions and instigate change. Structural inequality within our society is, once again, laid bare. How do we meaningfully go forward? How do we address pressing gender inequality issues as well as underlying racism? There is much work to be done, but one thing is clear: biased journalism must be addressed for the media to become, once again, the tool of equality and freedom it was meant to be. Journalism must represent our diverse society and it must shed a light on all injustices for all victims, regardless of their skin colour, gender, sexual orientation and social standing. How journalists report on violence against women is a good place to start.

This is why, at RHI, we are proud to count as clients several journalism organisations who investigate systematic racism and social injustice. These organisations are pivotal in ensuring that cases like those of Blessing Olusegun, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry receive the same coverage as the case of Sarah Everard. Journalism organisations committed to intelligent, socially-conscious and just reporting are essential to ensure everyone has access to unbiased news and that the media helps redress societal injustice rather than further it.

[1] Crenshaw, K. (1989) ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine’, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics, pp.139-168.

[2] According to the Centre for Women’s Justice there was a 49% rise in the number of calls to domestic Abuse Services in the UK During the First Nationwide Lockdown (Centre for Women’s Justice (2020) ‘Covid-19 and the Surge in Domestic Abuse in the UK’).

[3] UN Women UK (2021) Prevalence and Reporting of Sexual Harassment in UK Public Spaces.

About Lucy Hart