Features

News Flash: Pretty White Girl Goes Missing

Lydia Mahon tangles with media discrimination in the search for missing people

The parents of Madeline McCann will step up and speak out in
court as victims of the recent phone hacking scandal alongside Chris Jeffries,
the former landlord of Jo Yeates. This recent exposure of the News of the
World’s phone hacking antics confirms the need for an investigation into UK
media conduct. The UK media and The News of the World in particular seized hold
of these cases and provided the public with detailed coverage. In the upcoming
case, Lord Justice Leveson will scrutinize the methods used by these newspapers
to obtain information about the investigations but not the motives behind
running such extensive coverage on these particular girls in the first place.

The media functions to keep the world connected and although
it is incredible that the privacy of vulnerable people is abused for a business
initiative we are reminded through this that media is still a business. The
disappearances of Madeline McCann and Jo Yeates created a lot of revenue for
Rupert Murdoch – although the reader is morally obliged not to interpret media
coverage of a young girl’s disappearance in terms of financial gain.

When Madeline McCann disappeared in 2007, Murdoch’s The News
of the World hogged the media spotlight with an exclusive announcing a £1.5
million reward for Madeline’s safe return – the paper even donated a lavish
£250,000 to the cause. It is a shame to think that all this effort fell to waste.
Before the figure was finalised a “mistaken” text message was sent to thousands
of people confirming the reward total; the phone number provided to call with
information was that of News of the World, not Scotland Yard. The News of the
World may have bought a good reputation, but like all material things, that
reputation has now perished.

Cases such as those of Madeline McCann and Jo Yeates are
sadistically sweet to the media because they qualify as newsworthy in every way
imaginable. Girls at the centre of such cases share similar case studies and
are typically vulnerable, middle class and beautiful – in a young, blonde,
Caucasian sort of way. There is a term for this discrimination: Missing White
Woman Syndrome.

A paper published in 2007 by Sarah Stillman discusses this
media trend: “These messages are powerful: they position certain sub-groups of
women – often white, wealthy and conventionally attractive – as deserving of
our collective resources, while making the marginalisation of other groups of
women, such as low-income women of colour, seem natural.” Discrimination
becomes a frightening issue when the attitude of the media toward a missing
girl directly impacts upon her fate.

Days before Jo Yeates’ disappearance on 17 December 2010, 14
year old Serena Beakhurst was also reported missing. Media interest in Jo
Yeates was fierce, and subsequently there was a frighteningly pathetic level of
police involvement in Serena’s case. Her family and friends were forced to take
matters into their own hands, using social networking sites such as Facebook
and Twitter to find Serena themselves. We can only speculate on the police and
media motives for favouring Jo Yeates but to an onlooker the only distinction
between the girls is that whilst Jo was a white, blonde, University graduate,
Serena is a mixed race girl from South East London.

 

Four years on and awareness of Madeline McCann gushes into the realms of the retail world where an online shop boasts t-shirts, vests, bracelets, stickers and luggage tags under the new brand name “find Madeleine”. Kate McCann’s new book is also available in any supermarket. The Sun remains on the case as the voice of Madeline and her parents, pleading to the nation: “Never Give Up”. The notoriety of Madeleine’s disappearance has sparked Prime Minister David Cameron into action as he insists the case be re-opened, a flicker of hope for the parents of Madeleine. With enough effort and time from the police, the public and the government, their daughter may one day come home.

Hundreds of children are reported missing every day, the power of media discrimination is terrifying.

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