- A new online tool predicts how much news coverage a person would be “worth” if they went missing.
- The analysis highlights “missing white woman syndrome,” where certain races and genders get more coverage than others.
- “There’s a real fundamental justice issue here,” said the top editor of Columbia Journalism Review, which launched the tool.
A new online tool launched by Columbia Journalism Review on Thursday predicts how much news coverage a person would be “worth” if they went missing — and the creators behind it say it should serve as a wake-up call to newsrooms across the country to examine their biases.
The analysis — which estimates a person’s newsworthiness based on basic demographic data — highlights so-called “missing white woman syndrome,” where certain races and genders get more news coverage than others.
The gist is: a person will get the most news coverage “if you’re a young, white female living in a coastal city,” Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor-in-chief and publisher, explained.
“If you are anything other than that, your coverage immediately starts to slide and immediately starts to skew,” Pope told Insider. For example, a white young adult woman reported missing in New York could be covered in 67 news stories, but a same-aged Latino man would appear in only 17, according to CJR’s data.
The term, “missing white woman syndrome,” was first coined by late journalist Gwen Ifill nearly 20 years ago, and not much has changed.
“This is something that’s been named, that people have complained about, and it hasn’t really changed. And newsrooms and assignment editors need to change their behavior,” he told Insider.
People can test the CJR’s tool for themselves at the site AreYouPressWorthy.com, which asks users to input their age, gender, where they live, and their ethnicity. The tool then calculates the number of news stories that users would get if they went missing.
Researchers at CJR and ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day/New York sampled 3,600 articles about missing people that appeared last year in US news outlets to create the analysis.
They then matched that sample with age, gender, and race factors from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) database.
According to NamUs, 600,000 people go missing every year in the United States. About 38 percent of people who go missing in the US are Black, which is more than double their percentage in the population.
“So 38% of the people who go missing are Black, but [they account for] 13% of the news stories, and it’s flipped with white people,” Pope explained based on the data crunched by CJR.
White people, who account for 47% of missing person cases, were spotlighted in 70% of the news stories, Pope said.
“This is a coverage issue, but there’s a real fundamental justice issue here,” said Pope, noting, “Fundamentally, it’s about ‘is my life worthy of attention.'”
That message, Pope said, “is being conveyed every single day by what people read and what they see.”
Pope said he doesn’t think newsroom editors are aware of that message, but called it “sort of journalistic malpractice” to cover missing persons cases “the way it’s being covered now.”
Michelle Jeanis, a criminal justice professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette noted, “The research, over and over again, suggests that race — white versus non-white — is a huge motivator for media attention and even the likelihood of solving the case generally, whether homicide or missing persons case.”
Pope said he hopes CJR’s new tool helps society put pressure on newsrooms to cover missing persons cases more proportionately.
“The needle is hardly moving on this,” said Pope. “We were just trying to find a creative way to draw attention to it.”