Gabby Petito case reignites conversations about ‘missing white woman syndrome’

Disparities in coverage between missing people of color and missing white women persist despite efforts by advocates.

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The Gabby Petito case sparked conversation about how missing white women receive more national media interest than people of color, even when the cases are similar.

Petito, a white 22-year-old woman, was reported missing by her parents Sept. 11 after a cross-country road trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. Petito’s remains were found in Wyoming, near Grand Teton National Park, Sept. 19. Laundrie, who is missing, is a person of interest in the homicide investigation.

Petito’s case captured the attention of national media for weeks. CNN attributed the first 16 minutes of one of its primetime shows on Petito’s case. The New York Post dedicated three front page articles to the missing young woman in less than one week. And #GabbyPetito has attracted 1.4 billion views on TikTok and 20.7k and counting on Instagram.

Once Petito’s remains were found, and the coroner ruled her death a homicide Sept. 22, ABC News, CBS News, USA Today, NBC, CNN, Fox News, BuzzFeed and The Washington Post again made the case their top online story.

The national attention Petito received has reignited conversation about the disparity in news media coverage for missing Black and indigenous women and girls compared to missing white women.

According to Wyoming’s statewide Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Report, 30% of indigenous homicide victims received newspaper media coverage compared to 51% of white homicide victims. Indigenous female homicide victims had the least amount of newspaper media coverage, with just 18%. Over the past decade, 710 Indigenous people were reported missing — more than half were female.

As more commentary and revelations from Petito’s case continue to spread across social media platforms, the parents of missing people of color ask, “What about my kids?”

Toni Jacobs, the mother of Keeshae Jacobs, is among many Black parents in America whose child is missing. Keeshae, who would now be 26, has been missing for five years. She told her mom she was leaving for a sleepover Sept. 26, 2016 and has not been seen since. According to CNN, Toni said police suggested Keeshae was probably ignoring her mom’s calls and likely wasn’t missing. Fourteen months later, police said they suspected foul play in her disappearance.

Keeshae was just one year younger than Petito when she disappeared, but her case did not garner nearly as much media coverage as Petito’s.

This lack of coverage forces many grieving parents of missing people of color to act as detectives, taking actions into their own hands. These family members often hope for even an ounce of justice for their missing loved ones.

Derrica Wilson and Natalie Wilson are founders of the nonprofit Black and Missing Foundation Inc., an organization with a mission of bringing awareness to missing people of color.

“We help them navigate the process of working with law enforcement, which can be challenging at times,” Natalie said. “And we also help them get awareness for their missing loved one. It could be via our social media platforms, in addition to media coverage with our partners at the local and national level.”

Natalie also said that parents of missing children of color were “saddened because they believe that their child deserves coverage as well.”

According to the foundation, the disparity in media coverage is because of three false classifications: many children of color are labeled as runaways and do not receive Amber Alerts; missing adults of color are often labeled as criminals, gang members or as drug abusers; and the public is often desensitized to missing people of color because it is believed that these individuals often live in impoverished conditions.

Gwen Ifill, a late Black female journalist who worked for PBS, The New York Times and The Washington Post coined the term “missing white woman syndrome” in 2004. The term refers to the media’s overwhelming coverage of missing white women.

According to Natalie, the syndrome exists because “the media is fascinated with certain stories of blonde, white women.”

Thomas Lauth, founder of Thomas Lauth Missing Persons Investigations Worldwide, said he believes “missing white woman syndrome” is real. And while he said the media should report more on people of color’s cases, “the media feeds what the public wants.”

“Perhaps the public pays attention only to young blonde women on missing persons cases, and that attracts more viewers,” Lauth said. “That’s the goal of the media, is to attract more viewers.”

For Lauth, a change in the disparity of media coverage needs to start at the investigation level — ensuring police are doing the same work on cases despite racial differences.

“I think that there should be more awareness for people of color and people that come from complex backgrounds,” he said. “Rather than being treated as, say, a drug addict or a prostitute, they should be treated as equal by law enforcement to consider them as an important missing persons case.”