LENOX — Even if you’re not transfixed by the cascade of news alerts on your devices, nonstop cable and nightly network news coverage and social media obsession with the homicide of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito, it’s hard to be insulated from the national fascination about the case.
The 22-year-old native of Long Island in New York, whose body was found Sunday at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, was on a cross-country road trip with her fiance, Brian Laundrie, now described as “a person of interest” by investigators. Typically, that’s a term for someone likely to become a prime suspect.
How did this case become a ghoulish form of entertainment for Americans?
The answer is “missing white woman syndrome,” a term coined by Gwen Ifill, the PBS news anchor, at a journalism conference in 2004. Ifill, a Black woman whose distinguished career ended with her premature death in 2016, had commented: “If there’s a missing white woman, we are going to cover that, every day.”
As if to prove her point, in 2005 the case of Natalee Holloway, who disappeared while vacationing in Aruba, became a national preoccupation. Other examples include Chandra Levy, Shanann Watts and Laci Peterson. That kind of saturation coverage is unheard of for any missing Black, brown or Indigenous girl or woman.
In 2020, at least 543,000 Americans were reported missing, nearly 40 percent people of color. Among native women, homicide is the third-leading cause of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Justice Department, reflecting murder rates more than 10 times the national average.
Do any of us recall a single victim who was not an attractive young white woman? Evidently not.
On Thursday, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland told reporters that the extensive news media coverage of the Petito case should be a reminder of missing or murdered Native American girls and women. Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary, said that her heart goes out to Petito’s family, but that she also grieves for “so many Indigenous women” whose families have endured similar heartache “for the last 500 years.”
The relentless coverage has even engulfed The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today and many others. No surprise that it’s been nonstop on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and their ilk. Petito had chronicled her cross-country odyssey on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, where the hashtag #gabbypetito had received nearly 800 million views by last Wednesday.
The demographic makeup of major news organizations is a factor in the emphasis on stories of white women who go missing or are murdered, according to Martin G. Reynolds, co-executive director of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, the California nonprofit that trains people of color to become journalists, editors and news media managers.
“If you look at newsrooms, the coverage decisions are made in places that continue to be disproportionately white,” Reynolds told The New York Times. “These cases tend to involve white, middle-class women. And that resonates with assignment editors and news organizations. The one area of diversity that has actually improved relatively well in news media is actually women, particularly white women, in leadership roles.”
He noted that “our newsrooms don’t reflect the diversity of the country, and folks in editing roles are even less diverse. Until journalism corrects this, we are going to continue to be more and more irrelevant to the audiences that reflect the future.”
According to Danielle Slakoff, an assistant professor at California State University-Sacramento, who researches criminal justice and the media, white women who disappear are typically depicted as good people, while women of color are 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, normalizing victimization,” she said.
Regarding the “entertainment” value of disappearances like Petito’s, Slakoff pointed out that “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.”
Hakeem Jefferson, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, posted on Twitter a reference to 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. 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.”
In an eloquent Boston Globe column, Renee Graham wrote: “I’m tired of violence against women. Like Ifill, I’m tired that the only victims deemed worthy of concern and attention are young and white. The death of Petito is a tragedy. On social media, as much as traditional media, it’s a sensation. … Fueled more by heat than light, the bottomless interest in the story is ghoulish and macabre.”
As Graham pointed out, “the unspoken truth is that too few care about violence against any woman. Stories about white women in peril serve the same purpose today as they have historically — to fuel white fears about rampant lawlessness that are designed to defy calls for gun reform and heighten policing of Black and brown men rather than keep women safe. Never does the coverage of missing white women include informed discussions about the prevalence of domestic violence, or the fact that women are more likely to be murdered by a current or former intimate partner than by a stranger. No one mentions that murder is the leading cause of death for pregnant women.”
Graham’s bottom line: “ ‘Missing white woman syndrome’ magnifies the grim reality of how some lives are valued more than others. Regardless of race or ethnicity, these are all America’s daughters. Yes, Petito’s disappearance and death deserve our attention — so does every missing and murdered girl or woman.”
I can’t imagine a more powerful expression and affirmation. Individual, high-profile cases like Petito’s are prone to exploitation and sensationalism. The half-million missing persons per year represent a national tragedy that needs more media attention and solutions for women of all colors.
Material from The New York Times, The Boston Globe and NBC News was included in this commentary.