Is Joy Reid right Gabby Petito media coverage is ‘missing White woman syndrome?’


Fact Box

  • Gabby Petito was a 22-year-old influencer famous for the #VanLife trend. On a recent trek with fiance, Brian Laundrie, she was reported missing by her mother on September 11, 2021. Since then, her case has spurred nationwide coverage. 
  • MSNBC’s Joy Reid called media coverage of Petito “missing white woman syndrome” on Monday’s “ReidOut.” She referenced it as “the term coined by the late and great Gwen Ifill to describe the media and public fascination with missing white women like Laci Peterson or Natalee Holloway, while ignoring cases involving people of color.” 
  • On Tuesday, September 22, 2021, Teton County Coroner Brent Blue concluded the human remains found on Sunday near a Wyoming national park were those of Petito and declared her a victim of homicide.
  • The pursuit for Petito’s fiance is ongoing; investigators have been searching the 24,000-acre Florida nature preserve with helicopters, drones, dogs, and all-terrain vehicles. He was last seen at home before he left for a hike on September 14, 2021.

Ethan (No)

The tragic story of Gabby Petito landed in the national spotlight not because of her race but because of her social media influence. Petito was travel-blogging across the country in a van with her fiancé, which increased the difficulty of authorities pinpointing her exact time and place of disappearance to one state or location. The national coverage was essential in finally locating her and getting FBI involvement. 

In missing person cases, especially when foul play is unknown, the media should provide coverage so citizens can keep a lookout for the missing person or know to be cautious of a potentially dangerous person on the loose. When Petito's body was discovered and her death ruled a homicide, her boyfriend became a person of interest but also went missing. National coverage is key to finding him, perhaps getting justice should his involvement in her death is confirmed, and keeping surrounding communities safe. Many disappearances get this kind of coverage—not just White women. In April of 2021, the FBI joined an investigation of a Hispanic mother from Houston, Texas, after going missing only a week. This was about how long it took the FBI to join Petito's case.

All sorts of events get national coverage, but this case is not an example of one driven by race. The police shootings of Black men reported in 2020 were arguably highlighted by the media because it supports the narrative of police brutality against Black Americans. But coverage of unarmed White people shot by police rarely reaches national recognition. Reid labeling this case as 'missing White women syndrome' is not only inconsiderate of Petito's family but seeks to lessen the severity of the crime and finding those responsible. 


Tyler (Yes)

While Joy Reid's comments may have come off as a bit bold, they certainly weren't false. Reid pointed out a prominent disparity that has been present in society for years. Although 'missing White woman syndrome' appears to be harsh, it is a typical behavior found in media coverage. In the UK, Black people make up 14% of all those who go missing while only making up 3% of the population. In the US, 37% of all missing children are Black, compared to 14% of the population. A leading cause of missing people has to do with relationships. American Black women make up 29% of domestic violence victims. These statistics represent a significant discrepancy that still seems to be a secret to the general population. While some struggle to identify injustices and inconsistencies in society, this situation must be tackled head-on. 

Although a 2015 study reports that 35% of missing children are Black, they make up 7% of media references. News organizations appear to be quite reluctant to promote the news of missing Black children but have no problem expanding coverage for the search of White people, particularly White women. Although the amount of missing Black children out-number that of missing White children, the news organizations are still catering their program to their primarily white demographic. 

Black children are often categorized as 'runaways,' while White children are usually expected to be kidnapped. These assumptions prevent light from being shed on the situation and often can even prevent these children from being found.

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