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Acknowledging 'Missing White Woman Syndrome'

Race and gender bias in coverage of missing persons cases.

Key points

  • Equal attention should be given to all missing persons cases regardless of race or gender.
  • Cases of missing African American women often receive little to no news coverage when compared to Caucasian women.
  • Research studies can help us further understand the harmful influences of selective news coverage.
Luis Villasmil / Unsplash
Source: Luis Villasmil / Unsplash

Like most, I’ve been following the Gabby Petito case since it first aired on the news this past August. As a criminal justice professor, I often speak about the case to my students who, since the location and identification of Petito’s remains, have now redirected their attention to the widescale manhunt for Brian Laundrie, who was Petito’s fiancé. Law enforcement has deemed Laundrie as a “person of interest” in Petito’s disappearance and subsequent murder.

The case, while still unfolding, is now focused predominantly on finding Laundrie, whom most, including myself, believe is Petito’s killer based on the totality of events and circumstances surrounding her disappearance and death. Her death has since been ruled a homicide due to strangulation by the medical examiner’s office. Anecdotal evidence from the case, at least that which has been made public through various news media outlets, further suggests that Laundrie needs to be found and questioned even though his exact whereabouts still are unknown.

On Sept. 22, the U.S. District Court of Wyoming issued an arrest warrant for Laundrie following a federal grand jury indictment. As of this writing, investigators believe that Laundrie is somewhere deep within the Carlton Reserve in Florida. The more than 24,500-acre deeply-wooded reserve has over 80 miles of hiking trails and we’ve been told that Laundrie is quite familiar with the area.

As a criminal justice professor, I naturally gravitate toward missing persons cases, especially those that garner national attention. However, as a nation, our lurid obsession with missing young, attractive, blonde girls and women is quite compelling, because when I think back, I honestly cannot recall a single case, in my entire career, of a missing African American woman receiving as much attention as Petito and so many other Caucasian children, adolescents, and young women who came before her. This must change.

 Trevor Brown/Unsplash
Man Hiking
Source: Trevor Brown/Unsplash

As mentioned, Petito’s remains were found in Wyoming after an exhaustive search involving police officers, volunteers, and other search-and-rescue workers. Although the case had an unfortunate, tragic ending, Petito’s family can have a slight semblance of closure in knowing that their daughter was able to be brought home and receive a proper burial. And yet, a recent article in The New Yorker revealed that, over the past decade, 710 African American and other individuals from ethnic/racial minorities have been reported missing in Wyoming. Their whereabouts are still unknown. The widespread media attention given to Caucasian girls and women at the exclusion of others has been described as “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” a term now used by social scientists and media commentators.

According to Syracuse University professor Carol Liebler, "Missing White Woman Syndrome" dates back more than 15 years ago. "That's a term that the late Gwen Ifill actually coined, back I believe in 2004. What it says is that if a white woman goes missing, she's much more likely to attract the attention of the news media," said Liebler, who added, "And the white women who go missing, who do get that attention tend to be young, white, blonde, thin, sort of fit a dominant beauty ideal."

 Joel Veld/Unsplash
Source: Joel Veld/Unsplash

Empirical investigation into this theory is quite limited; however, a 2016 empirical study published within the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology emphasized that, at any given time, tens of thousands of Americans are reported missing by law enforcement, yet only a fraction of those missing-persons cases receive news coverage. The study concluded that there are obvious race and gender disparities consistent with Missing White Woman Syndrome, but those disparities manifest themselves in two distinct ways: One, the threshold issue as to whether a missing person receives any media attention at all, and two, disparities in media coverage intensify among the missing persons that do captivate the news. For instance, African Americans confront two types of disparity: One, they are less likely to appear in the news at all, and two, when they do appear, they receive far less coverage than Caucasian counterparts.

 Kevar Wilby/Unsplash
Woman walking
Source: Kevar Wilby/Unsplash

As a nation, we’re all to blame, but in order to change the narrative, we must start with the media. There’s no denying that the enormous media attention given to the Petito case is a perfect example of Missing White Woman Syndrome, and I strongly believe that coverage contributed to law enforcement finding her remains relatively quickly, especially when compared to cases that did not receive media attention or that, when they did, the coverage was limited to mostly local media outlets.

To change the narrative of this deep-seated cultural bias, we need to increase awareness about these racial and gender disparities, conduct further research, and have meaningful dialogues between the social scientists who conduct these studies and the politicians who can use their platform to create change. Second, we must hold the media accountable since they are largely responsible for determining a story’s newsworthiness. We, as consumers of news, can help too by sharing and disseminating missing persons stories of individuals who have been historically underrepresented in the news.

According to a recent Bloomberg Law article, if news agencies’ metrics reveal an increased interest in these stories, additional coverage of similar stories will follow. Lastly, law enforcement can ask for assistance in covering missing persons stories involving persons of color.

The Petito case is clearly tragic and deserving of the news coverage it received but let us not fail the family and friends of other missing persons whose cases have not received the same level of coverage.

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