‘Missing white woman syndrome’ on display

Journalists gathered at a nature reserve in Venice, Fla., where the authorities are looking for Brian Laundrie.
Photo courtesy of The New York Times

On Tuesday, Sept. 21, the Teton County Coroner’s Office determined Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito’s death was a homicide. Petito, declared a missing person on Sept. 11, received immense media coverage. However, this case revealed the lack of media coverage for missing women of color compared to white women.

In June, Petito, with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, set out on a cross-country trip. The couple had plans to visit states and national parks on the West Coast while documenting their journey on YouTube and social media.

Their trip was supposed to end in October, but Petito was reported missing after Laundrie returned to Florida without her. On Sept. 22, the FBI confirmed Petito’s body was discovered in Wyoming, ruling her death a homicide.

Petito’s disappearance garnered heavy media coverage. Both local and national media outlets reported details about the case. According to a Washington Post tally, Petito was mentioned a total of 844 times between Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.

Petito’s case also received internet communities on sites like Instagram and TikTok, which created timelines concerning her disappearance.

Heavy media coverage of Petito’s case ignited the debate concerning white women receiving greater national media coverage during a tragedy than women of color.

On her Sept. 20 show, MSNBC host of ReidOut, Joy Reid, relayed developments on the Petito case, stating that the family deserves answers and justice.

However, Reid called our heightened media attention on the case, asking why media attention isn’t the same when people of color go missing. Reid said the answer is: “Missing white woman syndrome.”

Gwen Ifill developed the term to describe media and the public’s attraction with missing white women while disproportionately leaving girls of color out of news coverage.

FAMU senior Kayla Braggs shared how familiar she was with the Petito case compared to another missing person case.

“I was familiar with her (Petito) story from a national news standpoint than I was with the other case (Jelani Day),” Braggs said. “The only reason I was familiar with that case was because I go to an HBCU and the HBCU community … was very adamant about trying to get him found.”

Braggs said the reality is, how the way you look influences the coverage you get.

“It’s kind of crazy that people have to rally on their own regard to find someone when it can get national coverage just based off the way you look,” Braggs said.

Braggs is aware of the number of Black women and girls who go missing and their stories not being told. She said these are issues that need to be talked about.

“In issues like this, we really do need to talk about it,” Braggs said.

Websites like Our Black Girls focus on telling the untold stories of Black women and girls who go missing or are found dead in odd circumstances.

The inequality in news coverage of missing persons for women of color is evident, but communities have shown that answers on missing cases can be found mobilizing and community searching.