How to cure ‘missing white woman syndrome’

600,000 people go missing in the U.S. every year. News coverage impacts who is (and isn’t) found

On Sept. 11, 2021, Gabby Petito was reported missing. Her family had last heard from the 22-year-old the last week in August while she was on a road trip with her fiance, Brian Laundrie. At the time, she was leaving Utah and headed for Grand Teton National Park.

Eight days after she was reported missing, her remains were found in Teton County, Wyoming. Laundrie, who had not cooperated with police, was considered a suspect (his remains were identified in October at a reserve in his home state of Florida).

It’s a story that dominated the news cycle. Petito’s name was mentioned 844 times in a single week on national television, according to a count by The Washington Post. Users on social media — particularly TikTok and Instagram, where Petito had been actively sharing details of the van trip — became fascinated by the case, upping the coverage through non-traditional media channels. No matter where you were on the internet, the attempt to find Gabby and solve her case was there, too.

Is it fair to blame ‘missing white woman syndrome’ for the Gabby Petito news coverage?

But what about the case of 24-year-old Daniel Robinson — a young Black man around the same age as Petito? He was traveling through a similar desert landscape when he disappeared on June 23. His last known location is Buckeye, Arizona, where he was working as a field geologist. His father is still searching for him, trying to get the Buckeye police to stay on the case (not to mention the national news).

Daniel Robinson, Buckeye, AZ, last seen 06/23/21, age 24

“I feel like there’s a lot that wasn’t answered for me regarding my son’s case,” David Robinson told ABC News. “I’m still searching for those answers and I’m going to keep trying until I get them.” A simple Google search about Robinson turns up a fraction of the coverage Petito garnered. Many of the articles about him also mention her.

The same is true of Lauren Cho, who went missing in California in June. Her case didn’t gain national attention until Petito went missing and comparisons were made, culling headlines such as “Search for missing Lauren Cho of NJ continues as Petito case brings light to missing persons.” Since, Cho’s remains have been confirmed found in the desert of the Yucca Valley.

Each of these are confusing, heartbreaking tragedies. Young bright lives lost and families without answers. And a lingering question about the media: Why do missing white women grab the nation’s attention like no one else does? 

Experts call this attention disparity “missing white woman syndrome.” Peabody Award- winning journalist Gwen Ifill coined the term in 2004, putting a name on a phenomenon a lot of people were noticing: Straight, white women were getting a disproportionate amount of coverage in missing person and homicide cases. And that coverage shaped how victims of all races were perceived and how their cases were solved.

It started as a social science hypothesis, but now as researchers across disciplines are digging into the numbers, they’re finding that it’s qualitatively true: When it comes to homicides and missing people, white women — particularly conventionally attractive, young ones — get significantly more attention than any other demographic group, even though they’re not disproportionately more likely to be missing.

They also receive more follow-up coverage, and the language used to describe them is more likely to be positive. We tell stories about pretty, white girls and then we keep telling them. And that media coverage and law enforcement attention lead to solved cases.

Experts are saying that needs to change. It’s not that attention shouldn’t have been paid to Petito’s tragic circumstances, but that other people’s lives and safety should be taken as seriously as hers. 

Markie Shea Williams, Billings, MT, last seen 9/14/21, age 14
Sterling Prinze Redstar, Billings, MT, last seen 09/11/21, age 17

For instance, in the period between when Petito was reported missing and when she was found, three Indigenous people — Markie Shea Williams, Sterling Prinze Redstar and Cloelle Buck Elk — were reported missing in Montana. None of them received anywhere near the amount of coverage Petito did.

Men, members of the LGBTQ community and Black, Indigenous and people of color all suffer from the lack of coverage. Emily Grant — a research scientist at the University of Wyoming whose study of two decades of crime rates in Wyoming was published in Jan. 2021 — says she found that 51% of white homicide victims during the 20-year period had at least one newspaper article written about their case compared to just 18% of female Indigenous homicide victims. “When stories are not reported they become invisible to the public.” 

When Ifill gave name to missing white woman syndrome, she kicked off an awareness of skewed perception, but it takes time for the research to catch up. It is doing so now. 

Zach Sommers — a legal scholar who studies crime, race and media — was one of the first people to quantify the disparity in coverage. He says he had a flashbulb idea to dig into the data after walking through a building where a bank of TVs was showing the news. “National news was showing coverage of a white, blond sorority girl who had gone missing, and I thought, ‘She looks a lot like the other news stories I’ve seen about missing people.’”

Sommers found that the phenomenon was developed enough to have a name but couldn’t find empirical evidence that it existed. “I’m a quantitative person, so I thought, ‘What does the data show?’ ” he says. In 2016, he overlaid FBI data with news reports to try to quantify the difference in coverage. “I wasn’t surprised that there were disparities, but I was very surprised at the extent of the disparities.”

His data showed that white women constitute one-third of the U.S. population but make up almost half the number of missing person cases covered by the media. The numbers jumped by 17 percentage points when he drilled down to who got additional coverage.

That coverage has significant trickle-down impacts on whose cases stay front of mind for law enforcement, especially in marginalized communities. Grant found that only five of the 710 Indigenous people reported missing in Wyoming in 2020 were recorded in the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), which is a clearinghouse for information for missing people. Coverage often translates directly to closure.

It’s not just the number of times certain victims are portrayed; it’s also how they’re portrayed that leads to action and attention. Danielle Slakoff, assistant professor of criminal justice at Sacramento State University, who focuses on media and crime, has studied the patterns of how female crime victims of color are depicted and says that Black and Latina victims are often described as risk-taking or living in an unsafe environment.

Grant calls it “character framing” and says there’s a significant difference in how people of different backgrounds are talked about, how they’re put in context, and whether they’re portrayed in a positive or negative light.

“Character framing helps the reader identify with the subject and gives them clues about if they are good or bad or worthy of empathy,” she says. She found that articles about white people were more likely to have positive character framing. “The articles about them told you that, for example, they were a mother, they had a job in the community, they went to church, they loved hiking, they had a smile that would light up a room, they have a family that cares about them, they have someone looking for them who wants them to come home, that they are missed.”

Slakoff says that how victims are portrayed when they are covered in the news is a deep root of the problem, and it’s entangled with prejudice. She says that in victimology — the study of crime victims — there are tropes about ideal victims. Decades of movies, news stories and true crime tales have socially enforced that image and the narrative feeds itself and leads to more stories. “Young pretty white girls get clicks,” Slakoff says.

So how do we untangle those threads of disparity and ensure that any family who loses someone has a chance of finding them and gaining closure?

Both Sommers and Slakoff say this might be a turning point thanks to a combination of pressures and societal awareness. Slakoff says it feels like the response to the Petito case, including the Petito family’s announcement that they were starting the Gabby Petito Foundation to “help all the people that are missing,” is changing the content of the conversation about missing people. She says this — making the journalists and police officers who are often catalysts for crime news stories aware of these disparities — is the first step toward changing policy and practice.

And when it comes to missing white woman syndrome, Sommers says even starting to talk about it is a step. “If people don’t see the disparities, change won’t come,” he says. He wants to see a diversity of perspectives in law enforcement and in newsrooms, because that impacts editorial decisions and which stories get published. Law enforcement and media feed each other, so there needs to be more diversity on both sides for cases to be covered equitably. He also said that the stories readers choose to read or click on make a difference in what gets published in the future. 

Media coverage is one piece of the tricky puzzle to stopping and solving violent crime, but it can be a big one — especially when it opens the lens of empathy and awareness. Grant says she’s been surprised and encouraged by the uptick in attention and conversations around missing people and how much it’s increased even since her study came out in January. She hopes it precipitates all kinds of changes and strengthens law enforcement’s commitment to all kidnapping and murder victims. Most of all, she hopes that it helps families who have faced the catastrophic heartbreak of a loved one go missing find clo- sure. Families like Jelani Day’s, who have been calling on federal authorities to investigate Jelani’s death after his body was found in the Illinois River in early September.

Jelani went missing on August 24. At that time, his mother, Carmen Bolden Day — much like Daniel Robinson’s father — asked local police and federal investigators to intensify their search for Jelani to the same degree of the search for Gabby Petito.

“I want them to look for my child like they’re looking for her,” she said tearfully in a local TV interview. “He is not a nobody. He is somebody — and I want him to come back home.”

It was a heartbreaking ask for help to bring justice to her son. But on a deeper level, her words are also the touchstone of the bigger point Bolden Day was making: Gabby Petito does not deserve less, but her son and others like him deserve more. 

This story appears in the December/January issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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