The Missing Stories of Missing Women

The journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff was an intern when she learned how newsrooms decide which missing person cases they cover. Now she wants to find a way to change it.

The Missing Stories of Missing Women
The U.K. journalist, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff. Illustration by Natalie Newsome.

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff was working on the news desk at a London-based paper one day in 2014 when a news editor rushed in. “He said, ‘Guys, we’ve just had a story come in. This girl’s gone missing: She’s white, she’s pretty and she’s middle class. Our readers are going to love her.’”

The brazenness of her boss’s statement shocked Brinkhurst-Cuff. “I was sitting there in this all-white newsroom thinking, oh wow, they say that kind of stuff out loud?”

In the U.K., 170,000 people go missing each year. But the media covers only a fraction of the cases, raising important questions about whose story gets covered, and why. 

The situation in the newsroom that day was a perfect example of “missing white woman syndrome,” a term coined by the late U.S. journalist Gwen Ifill to explain why missing white women receive so much news coverage in comparison to others. 

Four years later, Brinkhurst-Cuff was able to put the theory to the test when two murders happened around the same time in the UK: Joy Morgan, a young Black student and Libby Squire, a young white student.

Would the two women, Brinkhurst-Cuff wondered, get equal coverage? 

Short answer: no. “There was a massive discrepancy that was really clear to see,” she said. And it prompted her to question further: Why were white girls getting disproportionately higher, and more sympathetic, coverage? What could be done about it?

Now, almost a decade on, Brinkhurst-Cuff—whose career has included stints as the editor-in-chief of Gal-Dem Magazine and as an editor at The New York Times—finally has a chance to figure it out. She has joined the Reuters Institute at Oxford University as a fellow to study how newsrooms report on missing people; and how newsrooms can make their coverage more inclusive. 

In an interview with The Persistent, she discussed newsroom bias, the damage done by social-media speculation and why failures in policing lead to uneven reporting. 

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

The Persistent: In the U.K., Black people make up four percent of the population, but 14 percent of those who go missing. Why are so many Black people disappearing?

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff: The factors include higher rates of poverty and mental health issues. And we do unfortunately live in a society where there are more Black kids in care, proportionately. That feeds into these figures. 

Black people are also less likely to be found by the police. That [says] a lot about how we relate to the police. We're supposed to view them as a safeguarding agency; I just don't think that's how a lot of Black people view the police. The police are very much a last resort because of the well-documented institutional racism that has existed since we've been in this country. 

How conscious is the bias when news outlets are deciding whether or not to cover a disappearance? 

Making the judgment call as to which [murders/missing people] to cover is an imperfect science. The data show that despite the fact that Black people go missing at something like three or four times the rate of white people, [Black people] are less likely to have flags on our case files suggesting we are high risk or suffering mental health problems—flags which could have translated into media coverage. In other words, these cases are already being downplayed by the police. 

But also, you have this thing of editors being inclined to go for cases that they think are going to appeal to their audience. What that really means is that they are appealing to a white audience. That is systemic, although it is changing, and there are more people of color who are aware of it and actively trying to change that within their newsrooms.

What are the consequences of this historical failure to report on missing Black people?

We need to be mindful of not creating panic when instances of serious crime such as murder and abduction in missing people cases are actually incredibly low. Of all the missing people cases, only a small number relate to these types of serious crime.

But [following the drownings of several Black people in London, including Samaria Ayanle, whose body was found in February this year] there's a lot of chatter. I've had conversations with young people from the Black community who follow missing people cases, who think there's a serial killer going around murdering Black people and suggest it all ties [together].

If there had been solid reporting of Black missing people over an extended period of time, these conspiracy theories would not abound in the way they have. 

Sometimes, when a white woman goes missing, it’s used as a moment to elevate the cases of missing Black people on social media. Is that helpful?

I can completely understand that urge, but I am also wary of it. It feels problematic that the only time people of color who go missing are getting elevated is when there is a white woman's case that you can use to bounce it off. And ultimately, we need to get to a stage where that doesn't need to happen.

A really good example of this is [the influencer] Gabby Petito [who disappeared in Wyoming in 2021 and was later found to have been murdered by her boyfriend]. You would see headlines like “Gabby Petito’s disappeared: Here Are Seven Cases of Missing People of Color You Might Not Have Heard About.” But do I remember any of the names of those people? No. That's quite telling. 

It's not that cases of missing white women should necessarily get less attention. It's just about making sure that it feels equitable. 

Does reporting on missing people even help them to be found? 

In criminology classes, they do this test: Someone is outside the door of a classroom greeting students as they come in; then midway through the lecture, they'll put a picture of that same person up on screen and say, do you recognize this person? And there might be one student who does. The point is to illustrate that we as humans have actually got terrible facial recognition abilities. If you've just seen someone in passing, it's quite unlikely that you’ll recognize them in a newspaper article or on social media. 

But it’s a broad brush thing: It's not just about helping the individual, it's also about helping society. So yes, reporting on one particular missing case might not always be useful in finding that individual, but it might be useful in highlighting a particular trend. 

Reporting is definitely an incredibly important part of informing the public about missing people cases, and sometimes that can help the case in some ways.

Is the media more likely to sensationalize the disappearances of white people over Black people? 

There is definitive research that shows that in the U.S., Black people's cases are written differently than white people’s cases. 

In the U.K., the problem is so deep that it's not even that the cases are written about differently, it's that there's a lack of coverage altogether. So you can't even make a comparison as to whether or not one is sensationalized over the other because one hasn't been written about.