News media can’t shake ‘missing white woman syndrome,’ critics say

Journalists report from outside of T Mabry Carlton Jr Memorial Reserve in Venice, Fla, on Wednesday, Sept 22, 2021, where authorities are looking for Brian Laundrie, who is a person of interest in the homicide of Gabby Petito, a white woman. Major outlets have highlighted the case of Gabrielle Petito while often ignoring stories about women of colour who go missing. Eve Edelheit/The New York Times
On Monday night, MSNBC host Joy Reid invited two women on her show, “The ReidOut,” to discuss the case of Gabrielle Petito, a 22-year-old woman whose disappearance during a cross-country road trip generated a cascade of front-page headlines, news alerts and prime-time segments on cable news channels.

The guests, Lynnette Grey Bull and Derrica Wilson, are advocates for missing Indigenous and Black women and children, and they argued that the kind of media attention Petito’s disappearance was getting was sorely lacking when it came to the hundreds of disappearances that don’t involve white women.

Reid pointed out that PBS anchor Gwen Ifill, the journalist who broke barriers as a Black woman in the Washington press corps, coined a term for the phenomenon nearly two decades ago: “missing white woman syndrome.”

“The Petito family certainly deserve answers and justice,” Reid said on air. “But the way this story has captivated the nation has many wondering, why not the same media attention when people of colour go missing?”

The coverage of Petito’s disappearance in August, the discovery of her remains and the search for her missing fiance, Brian Laundrie, 23, has been relentless, with three front-page stories in The New York Post in less than a week. The New York Times published a breaking news story and a live briefing, and sent a news alert to subscribers.

“Any story that captivates the nation and our readers like this one is front-page worthy,” a New York Post spokeswoman said in a statement. The Times had no comment.

There were also live briefings from Newsweek and The Independent, a British publication, and frequent segments on cable news channels. On Wednesday morning, the day after a coroner confirmed that the remains were Petito’s and determined her death a likely homicide, the case was the main story on the Fox News website as well as a top online story at The Washington Post, USA Today, BuzzFeed, ABC News, CBS News, CNN and NBC News.

The intensity of the coverage has mirrored the interest of social media users, who have discussed and debated the case on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter as they pored over the videos and photos posted by Petito on YouTube and Instagram during her summertime cross-country trip. As of Wednesday morning, the hashtag #gabbypetito had received more than 794 million views on TikTok.

The demographic makeup of major news organisations is another factor in the emphasis on narratives of white women who go missing or are murdered, said Martin Reynolds, co-executive director of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

“What I’m most concerned about is the amount of coverage, and if you look at newsrooms, the coverage decisions are made in places that continue to be disproportionately white,” said Reynolds, whose organisation works with journalists of colour. “These cases tend to involve white, middle-class women. And that resonates with assignment editors and news organisations. The one area of diversity that has actually improved relatively well in news media is actually women, particularly white women, in leadership roles.”

The disappearances of people of colour tend not to generate the same volume of media interest, despite their occurring at a higher rate. A report from the University of Wyoming found that 710 Indigenous people were reported missing from 2011 to 2020 in that state, which is where Petito’s remains were found.

Fifty-seven percent of those were women, and 85 percent were children. A study in 2016 of four national and local news outlets found that Black people were “significantly underrepresented” in coverage of missing persons compared with their numbers in the FBI’s tally of cases.

Ifill, who died in 2016 after a distinguished career that included stints at The Washington Post, The Times and NBC News before she became the co-anchor of “PBS NewsHour,” raised the issue of what she called “missing white woman syndrome” at a journalism conference in 2004. “If there’s a missing white woman, we are going to cover that, every day,” she noted wryly.

In the years since, national news outlets have continued to deliver frequent, detailed reports that made young, white women such as Natalee Holloway, who disappeared in 2005 while vacationing in Aruba, into household names.

“Research, including my own work, has shown that white missing women and girls do receive more initial coverage, and they do receive more repeated coverage,” said Danielle Slakoff, an assistant professor at California State University, Sacramento, who researches criminal justice and the media.

She said that white women were typically depicted as good people, while women of colour were often characterized as risk-takers or somehow complicit in their own disappearances.

“White victims tend to be portrayed as being in very safe environments, so it’s shocking that something like this could happen, whereas the Black and Latino victims are portrayed as being in unsafe environments, so basically normalising victimization,” she said.

Slakoff added that there were a number of reasons people were interested in Petito’s case. The road trip was documented by Petito on social media, providing glimpses into her life. People wanted to feel like they were part of the story by helping to solve her disappearance and were connecting with others by tracking what was happening and trading information. But the amount of coverage threatened to turn the case into “entertainment,” she added.

“I don’t think we can discount the profit motive and the fact that, historically, these types of stories have gotten tons of engagement, viewers and clicks,” Slakoff said. “So I do think it could be argued that it’s kind of this vicious cycle.”

Stewart Coles, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Illinois’ communications department, said that the public interest in Petito’s case had helped drive the media coverage but did not account for all of it.

“We have to consider how sometimes choices about what stories are read and what we know are based on what gatekeepers within the media industry think that people want to know about,” he said. “And if those individuals think that people are more interested in a missing white woman, they are going to give us information on missing white women.”

In a tweet last week, Hakeem Jefferson, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, was critical of a Washington Post article that described Petito as a “blue-eyed, blonde adventure-seeker.” He noted that those details were not pertinent to the story and “unnecessarily racializes the missing person from the jump.”

“Journalists should be more careful in their coverage of these cases, lest they perpetuate an already unequal visibility landscape for victims who don’t fit the mold,” Jefferson said in an interview.

A Washington Post spokeswoman said: “As we reported, race and gender are often the reason these stories go viral, which adds a level of complexity when running a photo or description.”

On Monday, Ana Navarro, a political commentator for CNN and a weekly guest host of ABC’s “The View,” commented on Twitter that while she was glad the case of Petito was getting a lot of attention, “I just want there to be same interest and energy re every disappeared young woman in America — Brown, Black, Native-American, transgender.”

Her post was flooded with replies by people sharing images and descriptions of loved ones who were still missing.

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