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the explainer

The Explainer: What does 'missing white woman syndrome' tell us about media coverage of missing people?

On this week’s podcast we look at the discussions around the deaths of Sarah Everard, Gabby Petito and Sabina Nessa, and the issues about the media coverage of them raised on social media.

THIS WEEK SAW the sentencing of Wayne Couzens in one of the most high-profile and shocking murder cases in recent UK history.

He was jailed for life for the kidnap, rape and murder of 33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard, after arresting her under false pretences while she was walking home from a friend’s house.

Sarah was missing for seven days before her body was found. Her death led to an outpouring of discussion about violence against women.

Last month, this discussion was furthered and broadened by two other high-profile cases. Gabby Petito, a young vlogger from the US, went missing while on a trip with her boyfriend and was subsequently found dead. In the UK, the body of 28-year-old teacher Sabina Nessa was found the day after she was killed while on her way to meet a friend.

The discussion around Sabina Nessa’s death had people asking questions about whose cases get covered in the media and why. Among the topics brought up was that of ‘missing white woman syndrome’, a phrase coined by US journalist Gwen Ifill to reflect the disparity in what missing person cases get the most attention.

On this week’s episode of The Explainer, podcast producer Aoife Barry (that’s me) talks us through the Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa discussions and media coverage. She also looks at the cases of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, and Richard Okorogheye, people of colour whose families raised serious concerns about the treatment of their cases after they went missing.

Then we move to the US, where Washington Post journalist Brittany Shammas talks to us about Gabby Petito, missing white woman syndrome and what families of missing indigenous people and people of colour told her and her colleague Kim Bellman about their experiences. 

The Explainer / SoundCloud


This episode was put together by presenter Sinéad O’Carroll, and producers Aoife Barry and Nicky Ryan.