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News > U.S.

Gaby Petito: An Analysis on Missing Women 

  • National media coverage and tips were a huge help in the search for Gabby Petito, and some are now asking why the same kind of attention is not being given to other missing people.

    National media coverage and tips were a huge help in the search for Gabby Petito, and some are now asking why the same kind of attention is not being given to other missing people. | Photo: Twitter @KDKA

Published 23 September 2021 (23 hours 53 minutes ago)
Opinion

Cases of missing people are quite common in the U.S. mainstream media. News outlets prefer stories about young, white, upper-middle-class women who have vanished to stories about colored people, which has led many scientists to refer to the so-called “missing white woman syndrome”.
 

Recently, the case of Gaby Petito, who went missing after embarking on a cross-country road trip with her fiancé and was eventually found dead, has received widespread media coverage.

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As the case saturated the headlines and TV stories, many analysts brought up an issue of what is known as the “missing white woman syndrome”. The term refers to how the media appears to favor white people when covering such stories — and ignores colored people.

The visibility of the Gaby Petito story appeared to boost efforts to search for clues, particularly because social media was so largely involved. However,  there are a lot more cases of missing people that could benefit from the same kind of attention, observers say.

“It’s kind of heart-wrenching, when we look at a white woman who goes missing and is able to get so much immediate attention,” Lynnette Grey Bull, a leading advocate for Wyoming’s missing and murdered Indigenous women, told NPR. “It should be the same if an African-American person goes missing, or a Hispanic person goes missing, a Native American — we should have the same type of equal efforts that are being made in these cases.”

The issue of the disparity in media coverage has been raised before in the U.S. A report released by Take Part magazine in 2014 highlighted possible race-related reasons for hundreds of thousands of missing Americans being ignored. According to research conducted in 2010 by Seong-Jae Min and John C Feaster, missing African-American children and women were significantly underrepresented in television news. 

The term “missing white woman syndrome” first appeared in 2004 by PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill at a journalistic conference. However, researchers outline that it may not be directly connected to “overt racism”, since diversity in newsrooms, demographics, and the amount of online interest also affects media coverage of certain events.

The massive media attention that the Petito case garnered, however, prompted round-ups on the FBI missing people cases that are in need of fresh leads. In 2020, according to FBI data, more than 540,000 people went missing, including more than 340,000 juveniles.

USA Today reported that the FBI has conducted an internal audit of its field offices and came up with a list of 43 active missing person cases of people under the age of 21 that need fresh leads, with some of them remaining unresolved for decades.

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