Yes, the media is suffering from 'missing white woman syndrome'

It’s not wrong to care about Gabby Petito — but it’s wrong to focus on her case exclusively.

Sept. 22, 2021

By Ja'han Jones

Since word of her disappearance broke earlier this month, 22-year-old Gabby Petito has become a household name, thanks entirely to the American news media.

For the unaware: Petito’s family first reported her missing Sept. 11, after they’d been unable to reach her for several days. Authorities say she’d been traveling on a cross-country trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, since July. Petito’s family said she abruptly stopped replying to messages at the end of August. And last week, police in Moab, Utah, released video recorded by an officer’s body camera that showed Petito distraught after an alleged altercation with Laundrie. On Sunday, authorities announced they found a body “consistent” with descriptions of Petito in Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming.

The details of Petito’s disappearance have been shared frenetically online since she first reported missing. Some people have suggested the popularity of her story is due to its cinematic qualities, with some comparing it to a “Lifetime movie” and others connecting Petito’s disappearance to their favorite true crime podcasts.

In reality, data show the popularity of this particular story is likely due to the way the American media prioritizes missing people — not the specific details of Petito’s case.

During a 2004 journalism conference, legendary news anchor Gwen Ifill coined the term “missing white woman syndrome” to underscore the news media’s fascination with white women who go missing.

Black children go missing at a higher rate than white kids do, yet Black children who disappear are given significantly less media attention than white ones.

Racial disparity in missing persons cases is an absolutely real phenomenon, according to the evidence. A 2015 study found Black children account for roughly 35 percent of missing children's cases, but they were only mentioned 7 percent of the time in media coverage about missing children.

Outlets that choose to amplify stories of white disappearances more than Black ones — which occur at a disproportionately higher rate — are implying that Black lives matter less than white ones. And the suggestion that Black lives matter less than white ones was the impetus for movements like Black Lives Matter. Activists who have raised this point during the Petito search have been able to shed light on cases of missing Black people that had previously been widely unknown, including the disappearance of Daniel Robinson in an Arizona desert this summer.

After Joy mentioned Robinson and the disparate treatment of missing white and Black people during Monday’s show, some writers took exception to her use of Ifill’s “missing white woman syndrome” phrase.

These people are conflating media criticism (which Joy offered) with criticism of Petito (which Joy did not offer). These outlets — looking at you, Fox News — would be better served analyzing their own disparate race coverage rather than feigning outrage.

Petito went missing. She is white. She is a woman. And yes, our collective obsession with people who fit that description — to the exclusion of all others — reveals a sickness in American culture.

Ja'han Jones is The ReidOut Blog writer. He's a futurist and multimedia producer focused on culture and politics. His previous projects include "Black Hair Defined" and the "Black Obituary Project."