'Missing white woman syndrome': Gabby Petito coverage prompts media criticism for ignoring cases involving people of color

·Senior Writer
·3-min read

The case of Gabby Petito has drawn widespread national media attention ever since the 22-year-old — whose body was found near Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park on Sunday — was reported missing by her parents earlier this month, after her 23-year-old fiancé, Brian Laundrie, returned home from a cross-country road trip without her.

The intense media interest in the case has also prompted criticism of news outlets for not covering similar cases involving people of color.

In Wyoming, where Petito went missing, at least 710 Indigenous people vanished between 2011 and 2020, according to the state’s Missing & Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force. Of those, 466 were Indigenous women. A corresponding study by the University of Wyoming’s Wyoming Survey & Analysis Center found that just 18 percent of Indigenous women who were reported missing received newspaper media coverage.

And none received the kind of attention Petito did.

Gabby Petito (Instragram)
Gabby Petito. (Via Instagram)

“It’s kind of heart-wrenching, when we look at a white woman who goes missing and is able to get so much immediate attention,” Lynnette Grey Bull, a leading advocate for Wyoming’s missing and murdered Indigenous women, told NPR. “It should be the same, if an African American person goes missing, or a Hispanic person goes missing, a Native American — we should have the same type of equal efforts that are being done in these cases.”

Advocates like Grey Bull are trying to use the Petito case to draw attention to cases of missing people of color.

A viral tweet posted after Petito’s body was found urged Twitter users to learn about Daniel Robinson, a 24-year-old Black geologist who went missing in the desert near Buckeye, Ariz., in June.

Robinson’s father hired a private investigator and launched a Change.org petition intent on holding the Buckeye Police Department accountable and “to make sure this case is taken seriously.”

On MSNBC, host Joy Reid noted the disparity in coverage of the Petito and Robinson cases.

“The way the [Petito] story has captivated the nation has many wondering: Why not the same media attention when people of color go missing?” Reid said. “Well, the answer actually has a name: ‘Missing white woman syndrome.’”

The phrase was coined by the late journalist and “PBS NewsHour” co-host Gwen Ifill in 2004 to describe the media’s fascination with missing white women, like Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway, while ignoring cases involving people of color.

The media’s focus on the Petito case has been driven, in part, by intense interest online, with armchair sleuths scouring the couple’s social media posts for potential clues.

Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie. (via Facebook)
Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie. (Via Facebook)

Petito and Laundrie had spent months visiting national parks in their converted 2012 Ford Transit van, documenting the trip on YouTube and Instagram.

Laundrie, who was named a person of interest by police, was last seen on Sept. 14, when he told his parents he was going to a nearby nature reserve to meditate. His parents reported him missing three days later, and police have been scouring the 24,565-acre area for him.

But all of that doesn’t fully explain the wall-to-wall coverage of the case.

“There is an obvious disproportionate focus on her story,” Alvin Williams, co-host of “Affirmative Murder,” a podcast that focuses on true crimes with Black and brown victims, told the New York Times. “We can play the game of, ‘Oh it’s because she was a vlogger’ and all those things, but we can also see that she is a Gen Z, blonde, petite girl, and that is what gets the clicks.”

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