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

People are complaining that the case captivated the nation because of the slain woman’s skin color

News coverage of the search for Gabby Petito — and then, heartbreakingly, of her death — has brought to the fore cases of other people who have gone missing in the American West.

It’s also brought suggestions that systemic racism may underlie the nation’s obsession with a winsome young woman who happened to be white.

For days, people on social media have been complaining that coverage of Petito’s disappearance during a cross-country tour of national parks vastly eclipsed attention paid when women of other ethnicities go missing.

Others used the coverage of Petito as a chance to post information about other people who remain missing, hoping that the millions of eyes following the #GabbyPetito or #BrianLaundrie hashtags will remember the names and faces of other missing people and help to locate them, too.

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But the conversation became politically charged when MSNBC host Joy Reid said Monday that America’s fascination with the Petito case is due to “missing white woman syndrome,” a term she said was coined by the late PBS anchor Gwen Ifill.

A member of the media arrives outside the entrance of the Carlton Reserve during a search for Brian Laundrie on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, in Venice, Fla. Laundrie is a person of interest in the disappearance of his girlfriend, Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito. | Phelan M. Ebenhack, Associated Press

Reid said the phrase describes a tendency for the media to focus on cases of missing white women such as Laci Peterson or Natalee Holloway while “ignoring” cases involving people of color. She cited one case in particular, that of Daniel Robinson, a Black 24-year-old geologist who was last seen June 23 in the Arizona.

“His case struck me because it’s very similar. He’s missing in the same part of the world. It’s a case that has all the same kind of sizzle ... the mystery of it,” Reid said. And yet, she added, “I never heard of it until this friend of mine sent it to me. That’s the issue, isn’t it?”

At a time in which Americans are divided, largely along political lines, about whether the country is still steeped in racism, assigning the label “missing white woman syndrome” to the Petito case injects skin color into a criminal case that has nothing to do with skin color.

Academic research done on the subject suggests that disparities in coverage exist, not only between white women and women of color, but also between women and men.

Sociologist Zach Sommers, who has studied the topic, found “striking support” for the existence of white-women syndrome when he examined 2013 news coverage on and newspapers in Minneapolis, Chicago and Atlanta.

This combo of photos provided by FBI Denver via @FBIDenver shows missing person Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito. Petito, 22, vanished while on a cross-country trip in a converted camper van with her boyfriend. Her body has since been recovered in Wyoming. | FBI Denver via Associated Press

“Blacks definitively face dual types of disparity, as they are both less likely to appear in the news at all and also tend to receive less coverage even when they do appear,” he wrote. But men receive even less coverage than women, and white men received the least of all, Sommers found.

In 2016, he told NPR, “By choosing to disproportionately highlight the experiences of whites and women, these four news websites are implicitly — or perhaps explicitly — intimating that the cases of those individuals matter more.” But at that time, he also said there was little evidence that media exposure helped solve the highlighted cases.

In the Petito case, however, it’s been reported that social-media obsession with a young woman dubbed “America’s daughter,” helped locate her body. There are also two other factors that suggest it may be unfair to say that white-woman syndrome drove media coverage in this case.

First, there is compelling video of Petito — from her own documentation of the couple’s travels to the heartbreaking body-cam footage released from a traffic stop in Utah. This is the first high-profile missing-person case in the influencer age. In years past, we might say a story was “made for TV.” But Petito’s case, conversely, was made for the internet.

Reid described Petito as an “aspiring social-media influencer” and described the couple’s trip as a “van life excursion.” It’s unclear whether Petito aspired to be a social-media influencer, or whether she was only documenting her trip for friends and family. Regardless, she had a community in the “vloggers” (meaning, video bloggers) of YouTube and TikTok, and after Petitio’s mother reported her missing on Sept. 11, that community rallied to help find her.

“Many people following (Petito) feel like they have a vested interest in her because she was a part of their lives as she told her stories, and when it abruptly ends because of a tragedy, they want to help find out who did it,” Todd Shipley, president of the High Technology Crime Investigation Association, told USA Today.

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This highlights another way in which this case is unprecedented: It has revealed the potential of crowd-sourced sleuthing.

After a massive search, a body believed to be Petitio’s was discovered near the site where another traveling couple, Kyle and Jenn Bethune, inadvertently filmed her van in a national forest in Wyoming.

Michael Alcazar, a retired detective and now John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor, told The Washington Post that most law enforcement agencies don’t have enough detectives and these cyber-detectives may help fill a need. “Now we have so many eyes out there, millions of civilian investigators, because now they’re on the lookout. It’s kind of like an Amber Alert, but more effective.”

While the ready availability of video and the advent of social-media detectives have given the Petito case a boost in visibility, so too have the other strange turns of the case, to include the strange solo trip of Brian Laundrie to his parents’ home in Florida, his disappearance, and even the circumstances involving the Bethunes’ video.

Jenn Bethune found the clip showing Petito’s van after a friend pointed out that Bethune would have been in Bridger-Teton National Forest at the same time as Petito. She made the discovery on Sept. 19, which would have been the 17th birthday of her son, Ethan, who died in a car accident.

She wrote on Instagram that she believes Ethan helped her find the footage, which helped her to console another grieving mom — Petito’s mother — when they spoke.

That sort of coverage — a deeply moving story about shared human experience and the tantalizing promise of life after death — had nothing to do with the skin color of anyone involved.

But for many people, including criminologist Scott Bonn, the coverage of Petito’s death hinges on her looks.

“It’s about our culture and our society,” Bonn told the Washington Post. “We place a priority on whiteness. We place a priority on youth and on our expectations of physical beauty.”

Law enforcement officers enter the T. Mabry Carlton Reserve in North Port, Fla., as they search for Brian Laundrie on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. Laundrie was traveling on a cross-country road trip with Gabby Petito, 22, who went missing in August. Petito’s body was discovered over the weekend at Grand Teton National Park. | Matt Houston, Sarasota Herald-Tribune via Associated Press