Even if you don’t watch the news, you have probably heard about the recent disappearance and suspected homicide of Gabby Petito. Her face has been plastered all over media outlets, and the story of her disappearance has played out across the news and social media platforms.
Gabby’s story is tragic and sad, and it should be all over the news. But as a woman of color, it’s hard not to ask, “Why not the same media attention when BIPOC women go missing?” The widespread concern and fascination with Gabby Petito’s case is disheartening to the families of countless missing Indigenous, Black, POC, and Trans women who don’t get near the coverage we see when a young, white woman goes missing.
For those living under a rock, Gabby Petito was reported missing by her parents on September 11. Her body was discovered on September 19 in a remote area in northwestern Wyoming. Petito had been traveling across the western United States, visiting state and national parks with her fiancee, Brian Laundrie, since June of 2021. The Petito family attorney Richard Stafford says her parents were last in contact with Gabby during the last week of August.
Laundrie, Gabby’s fiancee, returned to the couple’s Florida home, where his parents also live, on September 1, without Gabby. When authorities attempted to speak to Laundrie and his family, they were referred to the family’s attorney. Then the Laundries requested that the police come to their home, and they shared that they hadn’t seen Brian since September 14. There is now a federal warrant out for his arrest.
Granted, the story of Gabby’s disappearance has unfolded like a hit Lifetime Movie. Both Gabby and Brain documented their travels together on Instagram, leading to massive interest in the story on social media. Since she was reported missing, hashtags related to Gabby’s case have skyrocketed, drawing hundreds of millions of views. And according to a Washington Post tally, in seven days, Petito had been mentioned 398 times on Fox News, 346 times on CNN, and 100 times on MSNBC. So, yes, this case is a bit of an anomaly, and I don’t blame news outlets for giving this case so much coverage.
However, it cannot be denied that missing white women statistically receive more media coverage than any other racial and gender group. A sociologist at Northwestern University, Zach Sommers, conducted a study looking at four online media outlets and found that white women were more likely to appear in missing person news coverage. The late PBS anchor Gwen Ifill coined the term “Missing White Woman Syndrome” to describe the media and public fascination with missing white women while ignoring cases involving women from marginalized groups. During ReidOut last Monday, MSNBC’s Joy Reid openly called Petito’s case an example of “missing white woman syndrome.”
Pointing this out isn’t to dismiss or diminish the focus on Gabby Petito’s story. It is simply to highlight the lack of media attention given to similar stories of marginalized women. I sincerely wish that this topic didn’t need to be highlighted. But I urge you to ask yourself when was the last time you saw media coverage of this magnitude for a missing Indigenous, Black, POC or Trans woman.
Did you know that in Wyoming, where Petito’s body was found, 710 Indigenous people — most of whom were young women and girls — have gone missing over the past decade? Where is the national media coverage for them? A report published by the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force examined media coverage and found that only 30% of Indigenous homicide victims made the news, compared to 51% of white victims.
According to a study by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, “Blacks on average remain missing longer and are more likely to still be missing by the end of our observation period than non-Black children.” The study further concluded that greater media attention missing white girls receive might aid search efforts, whereas resources available for search efforts involving Black children are more limited.
Sommers of Northwestern University explains, “White women and girls, in particular, are more easily seen as ‘universal’ victims with whom all viewers and readers can identify. Their outsized presence in the news as crime victims implies that they are inherently good and innocent. Conversely, the lack of media attention trained on victims of color denotes that their lives are less valuable and less of a priority for rescue.”
Many people are highly offended that anyone would suggest that the high-level media coverage has been influenced by the fact that Gabby Petito is a young, white woman. But pointing that out is in no way meant to downplay the tragedy of her death. There is no denying that she deserves the energy and focus that her case has received. All that we are saying is that missing Indigenous, Black, POC and Trans Women are deserving of the same energy.
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