How newsworthy are you? As the blanket media coverage about the disappearance of Ana Walshe, a 39-year-old Cohasset mother of three, illustrates yet again — if you are young, white, and pretty, and live in a place where horrific crime is not supposed to take place, you are very newsworthy.
What the late journalist Gwen Ifill described as “missing white woman syndrome” during a 2004 panel discussion is very much on display in the enormous amount of local and national press attention being given to the Walshe story. It follows a pattern highlighted by the Columbia Journalism Review in November about the coverage of missing people in the two decades since Ifill coined that phrase. “The sad fact remains that in the United States, white people, particularly white women, garner much more media coverage when they go missing than any other group, significantly out of proportion to the number of cases,” wrote CJR editor Kyle Pope.
CJR reached that conclusion by sampling 3,600 articles about missing people that were published in 2021. Based on that data, for example, the CJR analysis found that a young white woman who is reported missing in New York could be covered in 67 news stories, but a Latino male of the same age would appear in only 17. Included in this CJR story is a tool you can use to test your own newsworthiness. Go to areyoupressworthy.com and plug in your age, ethnicity, and geographic location and you will get the CJR assessment of how much coverage you might get. According to this analysis, those who warrant less attention are older people, as I learned by submitting my data points, and people of color.
According to The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a database run by the US Department of Justice, 600,000 people go missing every year. In Massachusetts, there are 177 open missing person cases. According to an Axios Boston report, 20 percent are non-white or of mixed race. (According to the Black and Missing Foundation, nearly 40 percent of missing persons nationally are persons of color, yet Black people make up only 13 percent of the population.)
Of course, not every missing person, no matter what their ethnicity, will attract media attention. But when the missing person is young, white, and female, the chances greatly increase. As the CJR points out, the same type of saturation media coverage of a young and pretty white woman unfolded in 2021 following the disappearance of Gabby Petito, 22, during a road trip with her boyfriend. Her body was ultimately found in a remote section of northern Wyoming. Her boyfriend died months later in Florida from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head.
On one hand, the story of Ana Walshe seems uniquely fascinating. Her husband, Brian Walshe, bought $450 in cleaning supplies from a Home Depot shortly after his wife disappeared and, according to a CNN report, conducted an Internet search for “how to dispose of a 115-pound woman’s body.” Yet would we be just as fascinated if this couple were Black and lived in Roxbury? Apply the same test to another crime story that is also attracting massive media attention — the horrific stabbing murders of four University of Idaho students. Would we be just as captivated if the victims were Black students attending Spelman College in Atlanta and the suspect were Black?
When someone like Ana Walshe disappears in a community like Cohasset, the man-bites-dog instinct of journalism clicks in. This town of about 8,400 is 94 percent white, with a median home value of $875,000 and a median household income of $156,689, according to US Census data. The crime rate is 7.4 times lower than the US average and there have been no reported murders over the past decade. So the Ana Walshe story is an anomaly, which makes it newsworthy.
But for journalism, the issue is not just what gets covered but what doesn’t. Whose life matters and whose does not. “Two decades of op-eds and research have not shifted newsroom habits; reporters continue to revert to skewed coverage, ignoring a much bigger story,” warned the CJR in November.
Yet the press certainly knows how to hold others accountable. On a day the disappearance of Ana Walshe continued to dominate the news, the Globe also covered the news of a Dana Farber study that found that people of color who are terminally ill receive fewer opioids to relieve pain. Dr. Alexi Wright, one of the authors of the study, said the next step is to understand what drives those decisions and “importantly to change it.”
That should be the goal for any kind of disparate treatment, in medicine or the media.