What the Hannah Graham Disappearance Says About U.S. Culture and the Media

The dangers of "Missing White Woman Syndrome."


Nobody knows what happened to Hannah Graham, the University of Virginia sophomore who disappeared on Sept. 13—though a lot of people probably have their suspicions, given the arrest of Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr. Naturally, interest in the case has been intense. Search parties have combed Charlottesville and Texas, where Matthew was captured, in hopes of finding Graham. News outlets have covered the story heavily.

By comparison, there has been almost no interest in Tyrell Alexander, a Richmond, Virginia, boy who disappeared the very same day Graham did. Tyrell is 15 years old, 5-foot-2, and weighs 110 pounds. He was last seen riding his bicycle.

Nor has much attention been paid to Amy Acuna Valdivia, a 16-year-old who disappeared from Herndon six days later. Or 13-year-old Traivon Brathwaite of Norfolk, missing since Sept. 2. Or Leniqua Collins of Richmond, gone since Sept. 23.

If you visit the missing-children page on the website of the Virginia State Police, you'll see scores and scores of notices for kids who have vanished. Some have been missing only a few days. Others have been missing for months. Others for years.

Where are they? What happened to them?

Hannah Graham is a straight-A student, an alpine skier, a saxophone player. She is also an attractive young white woman. And when attractive young white women disappear, their disappearances tend to receive far more attention than the disappearances of people from other demographics. This happens so often—Natalee Holloway, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, etc.—that there's even a name for it: Missing White Woman Syndrome.

Granted, Graham's case contains elements that point to foul play. She can be seen on video walking and running on largely deserted streets late at night after attending two parties in Charlottesville. A man who thought she was in distress began to follow her until he saw another man put his arm around her, whereupon the witness left. Police questioned Matthew briefly—then he skipped town. On Tuesday, the public learned of DNA evidence connecting Matthew to Morgan Harrington, an attractive Virginia Tech student who disappeared after a 2009 concert in Charlottesville. Her body was found in a field three months later. The alarming story reads almost like a TV-movie script.

We don't have similarly dramatic details about Tyrell Alexander or the others. Maybe they ran away. Maybe they're caught in custody fights between divorced parents. Or maybe they were pulled into a panel van, raped, and strangled. Seems a pity more of us aren't interested in finding out.

People often assume young white women are "innocent victims," says Dori Maynard, who advocates for diversity in the media, "whereas with poor children or children of color, there's some nefarious activities involved." Such people overlook the fact that children remain innocent victims even when nefarious activities are involved. Conjure up the worst stereotype you can think of about the urban poor underclass. Then try to explain how a young boy or girl in those circumstances is any more responsible for them than Hannah Graham was for whatever happened to her.

Missing White Woman Syndrome is troubling enough when it is unintended, as it usually is. That wasn't the case with Jessica Lynch, the Iraq War soldier who was captured in 2003. The Pentagon made her out to be a heroine who fought like a tigress against her captors—an account that was useful propaganda but, according to Lynch herself, just plain false.

But have you heard of Shoshana Johnson, a black woman who was captured alongside Lynch in the same firefight? Why didn't the Pentagon portray her as a tigress? And why did it say nearly nothing about the four male soldiers — Edgar Hernandez, Joseph Hudson, Patrick Miller, and James Riley—captured with them? Six Americans were taken captive that day. America learned about only one of them.

You can make an evolutionary-psychology argument that we care less about men because, in terms of human-species propagation, women are a much more valuable resource. That seems pretty crass. Ethical considerations are supposed to transcend, and sometimes even frustrate, base evolutionary instincts. If mere species propagation were morality's guiding star, then men with multiple baby mamas would be eligible for sainthood.

In any event, such distinctions don't explain the racial disparity—and they are irrelevant to the disappearance of children, who constitute both the prospects of humanity and the apotheosis of innocence.

True, incidents involving those who are not pretty young white women do sometimes make national news: Trayvon Martin, for instance. Or Michael Brown. But those are rather different sorts of discussions, aren't they?

None of this is meant to suggest we should care any less about Hannah Graham. Her disappearance is a searing event; her absence, a gaping wound. Of course we should care, very deeply, about what happened to her. We should care just as much about a black teenager from a broken home who vanished one day after skipping school. But how many people do?

It is "self-evident," wrote the founders in the Declaration, "that all men are created equal." Two centuries later, we still have a hard time treating them that way.

NEXT: Watch This Pittsburgh Detective Steal a Man's Money at 7-Eleven

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  1. Probably because the non-white disappearances are very much “dog bites man” and just depressing to recount over and over and over. Same reason you don’t hear much about blacks shooting blacks.

    1. “We should care just as much about a black teenager from a broken home who vanished one day after skipping school” No, we shouldn’t. People are going to care about what they care about. You can’t make somebody care about something they have no interest in.

      The fact that this case led to the capture of a possible serial killer just makes it more interesting to everybody.

      1. Yeah, a possible weird murder is going to get more interest than a runaway teen. Lots of pretty white girl teens runaway too. If there is no reason to think that anything else happened (or if it looks like a custody dispute as I mention below), of course they are going to get less interest.

    2. Yeah the media attention is driven by the market, it’s not the media driving what the market cares about. So I don’t really see what the purpose of these articles are, in pointing out “Missing White Woman Syndrome”. People tend to give more of a fuck about middle class or higher people who’ve been the victims of crimes that do not “normally” befall them with the same frequency that occurs with lower class people living in crime ridden areas.

      If we exaggerate the circumstances a bit, you can logically see why. If a multimillionaire was kidknapped and murdered, that’s something that will be covered by the media, quite heavily. If someone kidnaps and murders someone living the slums of Detroit, it’s basically reporting on something that happens with some frequency. Otherwise all the news outlets would exist solely as missing person’s reports. Newsworthiness has nothing to do with equality and more to do with the perceived worth of the victim.

      It’s impossible to give all of the stories equal attention so some sort of metric must used and as it turns out, people empathize better with middle class damsels in distress.

      1. The message is basically “I care. And you should, too. Sincerely, Bart Hinkle.”

        That’s it, that’s the sole point.

        1. Caring isn’t the same thing as reading about, activism or writing online about the case. If ‘equality in caring’ meant all of the extra attention you’ve given to Natalie Halloway or now this girl, then no one would give a shit about anything from the sheer fatigue of giving so many shits about every single instance of injustice they hear about.

          Scarcity limits all things we would like to do, scarcity of time and emotional resources makes the “equality of shit giving is caring” argument completely unrealistic if not absurd.

  2. FWIW – I never even heard of this person until now. And I listen to 1+ hours of news/talk radio daily which is littered with BOO! stories.

    1. You don’t live in VA, 24/7 with this case. It is awful.

    2. Same here. I actually had to read the damn article to find out what this was about.

  3. There is definitely more attention given to pretty white girl disappearances than some others. But another aspect is that a lot of “missing children” are off somewhere living with a non-custodial parent. I’m sure some of those situations suck, but some are just messy custody disputes. The way missing children are covered, you’d think that they were all stolen away by slavers and pedophiles.

    1. Yep – As soon as I hear the parents are divorced, the mystery is over for me.

    2. +1

      For decades now advocates for separated parents and runaway children seem to have been encouraging this overbroad “missing” classification in order to raise public concern and garner funding, and have incidentally encouraged “stranger danger” panic in the process. I’d like to see “missing children” statistics broken into those categories routinely, but that would require the media to do more than just repackage press releases.

      1. Broadening the classification certainly has not helped the genuinely kidnapped children. I may be a callous bastard, but devoting more resources to the kid snatched out of his bad at night seems more appropriate than diverting equal resources to the 16 year old from a broken family who ran away from home.

        1. At 16 a lot of people are going to be better off out of their fucked up home situation (or as wards of the state, which is probably the other option in many cases).

    3. Yup.

      When it’s almost certain that Other Parent has the kid, there’s no media circus, and nobody really cares, in the general mass of people, at least in the normal “custody battle” cases.

      1. Yeah, I think the exception might be the situation where you have one parent as foreign national who takes the kids overseas and refuses to return to the U.S. for custody hearings.

  4. So this is the latest case of, “Where da wimminz at?”

  5. Speaking of awkward segues, I saw Girl Gone this weekend. Good flick! David Fincher can tell one hell of an effective story. But like most movies of its type, the plot falls apart the more you think about it.

    1. How does it compare to the book?

      1. having not read the book I feel like the movie left out some crucial details.

    2. Yea I thought it was awesome but the wifes character made no sense. What was her end game? she seemed to have petty cash but that was it. For someone so conniving it seems it was quite an oversight unless i missed something. Also how stupid was Ben Afflecks character?

      1. In the book, her plan was to live long enough to see her husband fry and then kill herself so she didn’t need money. At some point, she changes her mind about killing herself

        1. that makes sense. If she did me like that and showed back up in town I would have considered actually murdering her.

        2. At some point, she changes her mind about killing herself

          Don’t they all?

      2. That’s why I hated the book and I’m passing on the movie. He’s a loser, she’s a psychopath, and one of them “wins.” It ends when Gillian Flynn gets writer’s cramp and realizes she’s close to deadline anyway.

        1. That was kind of my feeling about the ending (though I didn’t read the book). It’s like the writer decided, “Man, wouldn’t it be craaaazy if this was how it wound up?” but didn’t actually have any logical and plausible way to make the story go there, so they just made everyone suddenly turn into an idiot.

  6. Unfortunately, Hinkle writes, when attractive young white women disappear, their disappearances tend to receive far more attention than the disappearances of people from other demographics.

    This injustice just screams for “Hannah’s Law”: “The media must treat all disappearances equally.”

    1. People must be forced to show equal interest in things that do not interest them!

      1. How do you know you’re not interested in it if you don’t know about it, DUH!

    2. Why is it unfortunate? At least people care about some criminal cases, and might help solve them.

  7. Alexis Murphy, an African-American High schooler, from Nelson County, Va. disappeared 2 years before Graham, and the media coverage of that (at least locally in Virginia) was comparable.

    1. Alexis Murphy, RIP.

      Sorry about the cynicism.

      1. Cynicism is totally warranted, but Hinkle’s convenient memory lapse on the Murphy disappearance irks me. FWIW, her murderer was a CWG fitting all the stereotypes.

        1. Whata a CWG?

          1. Creepy White Guy

            1. Thanks.

  8. Hannah Graham is a straight-A student, an alpine skier, a saxophone player[….]

    … and a stupid drunkard.

    And when attractive young white women disappear, their disappearances tend to receive far more attention than the disappearances of people from other demographics

    Because it happens far less often.

    1. PRECISELY. If you were a news producer and you can run with a story about a fatherless black kid with an addict mother, who ran away from his broken home at 16 and is “missing” or a 10 year old (pick a race) who is snatched out of his bed at night time? What’s more ‘newsworthy’?

    1. I think she was in Boogie Nights.

  9. Like people said, a lot of these things are custody disputes.

    A parent (eg, for instance, a father) takes the child which the divorce court awarded to their spouse (eg, for instance, a wife). That’s not on the same level of a guy in a blue van grabbing some girl off the street. Or killing her, as may have happened in this Va case.

    1. The Blue Van Driver’s Anti-Defamation League will want a word with you.

      1. I thought it was white vans?

        (Because nobody looks at a utility van twice, and all the work vans are white.)

        1. Whereas you cross to the other side of the street when you see a black work van…

  10. In this particular case, I’m not seeing the “attractive” part.

  11. So what?

  12. Who writes this drively crap?

  13. “A man who thought she was in distress began to follow her until he saw another man put his arm around her, whereupon the witness left.”

    Man…. I’d be guilt-ridden for the rest of my life.

  14. Allow me to be cynical for a moment. Maybe the media only covers stories that will further the big government narrative. Since black people are the most reliably Democratic ethnic group, covering the disappearance of black kids doesn’t further the narrative very much. Covering the middle class and upper class white girls, however, does since it reinforces the narrative the middle and upper class white people that the world is a scary dangerous place and they need big government to protect them and especially their little snowflakes.

    1. Only problem with that idea is that it seems like it would be of as much benefit to “tough on crime” republicans as to democrats.

      I think it probably just sells more ads.

      The media overall definitely pulls left (and those that don’t still mostly love big government). But I really don’t think that enough are clever enough or deep enough thinkers to even attempt to do what you describe.

      1. You are living in the past Zeb. The Democrats are now a wholly owned subsidiary of the public employee unions. And the prison guards and the cops most certainly want their politicians to be tough on crime and they want the public terrified of being a victim of crime.

        1. So that just means that both parties are pushing the tough on crime, cop fellating crap. I don’t see any republicans going against police unions. They have hardly abandoned their tough on crime, law and order stance. This is one issue where both parties are terrible in pretty much the same way.

          1. Sure. But that just means the unions have won. It doesn’t make the “oh my God you are in danger” any less of desirable message for the Democrats.

        2. In any case, I think that what most people seem to be saying is correct. These stories get more coverage because more people find them interesting, for whatever reason.

          1. Everyone loves a pretty girl.

            1. Apparently not, since serial killers sometimes kill them.

              1. But they LOVE killing them, so it still works

    2. My takeaway was don’t wander around alone in the middle of the night when you’re drunk.

  15. Note also that the murder of a black person gets all kinds of coverage when the assailant is white. This of course reinforces the “racism is a national scourge” narrative among others. Also, while the national media certainly cares a lot about dead, cute white girls in these kinds of cases, they don’t care much at all about dead, cute white girls if their murderers were black and were motivated by racial hatred. Those cases get sent down the memory hole. Here, the murder seems to be an all purpose sicko and thus doesn’t raise any issues the media wants ignored.

    1. I don’t remember there being any rioting in Ferguson when a white couple were carjacked, tortured, raped, mutilated and brutally murdered by a group of black men and women who not only admitted to racial animus as the motive, but at least one of them was acquitted for no good reason, while another was able to get a plea deal for their testimony.

      1. There have been similar cases like that in Wichita Kansas and Knoxville Tennessee. Ni ether of those nor your case received any national attention at all. Yet, the Travon Martin case was totally worthy of 24 seven coverage for months.

        Never forget that the national media are the worst sorts of scum. They are just scum every single one of them.

        1. Yet, the Travon Martin case was totally worthy of 24 seven coverage for months.

          Yes Trayvon Martin case has to be the most famous case of infanticide since Caligula’s daughter.

    2. It’s all about ratings. If it will get people mad, or the picture of the victim (or suspect) will make people stop flipping channels, it leads.

  16. The late Patrice O’Neal explained this cultural disparity quite well:

    1. He was really funny. Can’t believe we lost him and Berny Mac in like a year’s time.

  17. I tend to wonder if at least some of these tragic stories tend to percolate to the top and float there for a while simply because the victim’s family and friends are very aggressive in keeping the public aware of their plight while other families may have limited resources or minimal group support that by proxy forces their plight to immediately fade from the public eye upon announcement.

    In any case, I do deeply feel for the scores of kids and people who remain undiscovered due to foul play. Problem is, to remain in a perpetual state of heartfelt concern over these unfortunates is likely to lead to some form of despair and/or mental illness.

    1. There is a lot of that. Part of the reason why Trayvon Martin got picked up by the national media was because his uncle is a fairly connected Democrat in South Florida.

      1. *Part of the reason why Trayvon Martin got picked up by the national media was because his uncle is a fairly connected Democrat in South Florida.*

        Snort. Yeah, sure. Nothing to do at all with the DNC using it as a cudgel to take law-abiding people’s guns away. Nope.

        1. No, it was both. The reason why the DNC and the Dem op media knew about the case and pushed it was because Martin’s uncle made them aware. Otherwise, it is just a local story no one in Washington ever hears about.

          1. Well and the fact that he looked like dear leaders son.

        2. For one of those people who comes around chastising Reason for logical fallacies and inconsistency, one would think you could at least understand the meaning of the phrase “part of”.

  18. I find this point of view fascinating. It seems to start with the premise that all human lives are equally valuable and equally interesting, and then faults people for not behaving according to these assumptions. But it’s nonsense because people are not like that.

    1) Humans tend to be more interested in things that are close to them, regardless of size. A car accident at the corner is more interesting than an earthquake in China. A white “girl next door” is closer in experience to most Americans than “a black teen from a broken home.”

    2) Anomalies are more interesting and inherently dramatic than regular events, so missing people from the lower classes are less interesting than missing people from the middle class, and an attractive person gone missing is more interesting than an unattractive one gone missing.

    3) Humans never see all other humans as equally valuable. We all rank some highly (family, friends, favorite famous people), some we just don’t care about, and some we’d often prefer would just disappear. A missing upper class person would be tremendously interesting, regardless of race. Imagine the media reaction if Rihanna disappeared. “Missing white girl syndrome” exists because middle class white girls are simply seen as more valuable than lower class girls, be they black or white.

    Sorry, that’s the breaks.

    1. The odd thing about this point of view is that getting a bunch of media coverage about a death somehow helps anything. So what if the media latches onto this kind of victim versus another? It is not like the media coverage is going to bring her back from the dead or make her family feel any better. If anything, I would rather not have the media coverage if I had a child murdered. Fuck the media, they are nothing but scum anyway. I can’t see them doing anything but aggravating my grief.

      1. It helps get clicks. For the reasons I stated, this sort of thing interests people, and the news media is in the business of covering things that interest people.

        1. It makes money no doubt. But the implication of these kinds of stories is that the lack of coverage for murders involving other types of victims is some how a bad thing for those victims and their families. That hardly seems clear. You really have to be some kind of vicious racist to want to inflict Nancy Grace on more black murder victims’ families.

    2. “Humans tend to be more interested in things that are close to them, regardless of size. A car accident at the corner is more interesting than an earthquake in China.”

      This is true. What it doesn’t explain is why the Hannah Graham story is getting big coverage in England’s Daily Mail. Aren’t there any pretty white British girls being kidnapped?

      1. Sure they are but their kidnapers are Pakistani and you can’t talk about such things in Britain. So the Mail has to look to America for its properly murdered white girls.

      2. I think that’s the possible serial killer aspect, which is another anomaly that makes this more interesting. Plus, the Daily Mail is rather fearlessly politically incorrect, so a pretty white girl possibly murdered by a scary-looking black guy is just the sort of thing they would go for.

      3. What it doesn’t explain is why the Hannah Graham story is getting big coverage in England’s Daily Mail.

        Her family are Britons.

        1. and therefore Hannah is British too (as far as the British are concerned, she is also a US citizen by birth)

    3. You have it mostly right. I’d just add that white women make up the largest portion of the public consuming this type of media. When a nice white girl goes missing the media hype it because they know which viewers are tuning in. Women watch The View and Oprah (when it was on), for fucks sake.

      1. Yes, true.

      2. Plus, there’s what some would call the “sexism” of the whole story: it’s a form of the old trope of a mustachioed villain tying a damsel to the railroad tracks.

      3. It’s not just when they are the victims either — the Jodi Arias trial was the biggest news in the nation for months, for some reason.

        1. Exactly. If she looked like Jesse Mathew or was just ugly, it would not have been nearly the story it was.

  19. Hmmm. Last time I checked, it wasn’t me that determined what the media reports or does not report. Now a journalist(!) wants to know why journalists aren’t reporting certain stories…gosh perhaps Hinkle needs to start covering the news he feels we are missing out on? As far as Hannah Graham goes, the wealth of video documentation, history of similar (serial killer?) cases in the past, and a prime suspect makes for a ‘good’ story but ‘kid disappears’ with no further story – not so much. Lynch – one presumes this was simply government war propaganda targeted at the largest voting segment of the population – ‘white people’ likely to sympathise. Again, journalists reported on the Lynch gov’t press releases – whomever was reported as a ‘tigress’ was no doubt determined by the media – which isn’t us…

  20. There can be a disparity just within the category of white women- back a few years ago a couple of girls were killed north of San Diego by the same guy- one was I think 17, blonde, beautiful young woman, attention seeking parents, the other was a awkward-transition-to-teenager looking 14 year old. Guess which one got the law named after her. And the annual run, and a charitable foundation… It was just incredible, I felt bad for the 14 year old’s family, it’s like she barely existed. I always hoped that it was just because the family didn’t want as much attention in their grieving.

    And more to the article, around that same time a guy (hispanic, young 20s) got his brains blown out in the street about 50 yards from my house. Short note in the paper, never heard about it again. Fucking pissed me off.

  21. Dear A. Barton Hinkle,

    Your article has changed my life. Our family has decided to cash-in our retirement and college savings accounts (penalities be damned!) to fund sex changes for our two sons.

    College education, secure retirement, paying the bills are trivial. Being a “pretty, young, white” woman – PRICELESS!

  22. “In any event, such distinctions don’t explain the racial disparity…”

    Yeah, let’s not waste too much time explaining away the disposability of men, and get onto the important prejudice of race.

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