Three-year-old Madeleine McCann disappeared on May 3, 2007 from a holiday apartment in Praia da Luz, Portugal. Her story became an international sensation. What had become of the angelic, little, blonde British girl? Had she been murdered by her parents? Abducted and sold into a pedophilia ring?
It’s been 10 year’s and Madeleine’s story still captures headlines. In March 2019, she was the subject of the Australian podcast Maddie, and a Netflix series called The Disappearance of Madeline McCann. So why do we remain captivated by the fate of this specific little girl, especially when so many other children go missing every day? The answer might have something to do with a phenomenon coined “missing white woman syndrome” by journalist Gwen Ifill to refer to the media’s obsession with covering the cases of missing and endangered white women like Natalee Holloway, Elizabeth Smart, and Mollie Tibbetts.
While every missing person deserves attention, not all cases are treated equally in the media. In particular, there seems to be little interest in missing persons of color – even children as young at Madeleine. Zach Sommers, a law and science fellow at Northwestern University School of Law undertook a study to empirically prove the largely anecdotal theory that women of color receive different treatment from the media. He found distinct disparities in race and gender in both how often the media covered missing women of color, and in the intensity of that coverage once it did appear in the news, with the numbers overwhelmingly favoring white women and girls.
“A person’s race plays into the types of assumptions we make,” Sommers told Refinery29. “The labeling of teenagers as runaways tends to be racialized. There is a hierarchy of victims in the media and in society, where we are more willing to label a young white girl as blameless.”
This blamelessness feeds into an old societal trope of “the damsel in distress” creating a cyclical process in which media producers present white victims as more relatable and media consumers find their stories, through repeated exposure, to be more “universal.”
Ahead, we’ve highlighted the cases of three young girls who all disappeared around the same time as Madeleine McCann and whose cases remain unsolved. The big difference? These girls are not white and their cases attracted just a fraction of the media coverage.
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