The Spartan
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The Spartan

The Spartan

Oct 19, 2021

4 min read

‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’: The case of Gabby Petito, in a nutshell | Opinion

This police camera video provided by The Moab Police Department shows Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito talking to a police officer after police pulled over the van she was traveling in with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, near the entrance to Arches National Park on Aug. 12, 2021. (The Moab Police Department via AP)

Column by Karisma Boyd

bout 240,000 women of all ages have gone missing this past year in the United States, not including women who haven’t been documented, according to blackandmissinginc.com.

Usually, after the police make “missing persons” cases public, the cases make their way into our home whether it’s the TV screen, cellular devices or other forms of media coverage.

We assume that the media covers as many cases as they can, but the latest high-profile missing persons case has caused some to notice a pattern in coverage, so much so that the New York Times wrote about it in this Sept. 30 story.

Although all missing person’s cases are very important in their own right, sometimes it seems there is a racial component to the coverage of them.
The discourse is revolving around noticeable inconsistencies when it comes to who is and isn’t being covered in the media regarding missing person’s reports.

And this year, it’s the case of 22-year old Gabby Petito, who went missing in August while she was traveling with her boyfriend Brian Laundrie. Her remains were later found on Sept. 21 in northern Wyoming. Police are treating Laundrie, who is currently missing, as a potential suspect.

Before Petito was found, social media further amplified her story daily with millions of views, hashtags, and posts regarding Petito’s whereabouts and possible leads.

Every day leading up to Petito’s remains being found, the news seemingly covered her story non-stop, and from many angles. The infatuation with Petito’s case sparked a national debate surrounding the lack of media coverage that people of color receive in news compared to white women.

Gwen Ifill, a well-known journalist and commentator, recently coined the term “missing white woman syndrome.” it refers to the disproportionate media coverage, especially in television, of missing-person cases involving young, white, upper-middle-class women or girls compared to the relative lack of attention towards missing women who are not white, women of lower social classes, and missing men or boys.

Why is it that a majority of missing black people go underrepresented in the media?

Studies prove that once again it’s based on the desensitization of black life, further amplifying the stereotypes and narratives that have carried them the last 400 years.

According to blackandmissinginc.com, almost 40% of Black Americans have been reported missing but only make up 13% of the population.

The lack of coverage of these cases points to the fact that missing Black people already have a number of excuses lined up for their disappearance. Based on research from blackandmissinginc.com, a lot of young minorities are often classified as runaways, involved in gang activity or are living in impoverished areas, therefore allowing law enforcement to pay less attention to the case.

An example of these kinds of flaws in the system is the missing persons case of Jelani Day, a 25-year-old Illinois State University student who was reported missing Aug. 25 after it was noticed that he has missed several classes.

During this time, Jelani’s mother Carmen Day pleaded with the media for investigators to give the disappearance the same effort and resources as Petito’s case.

She spoke with abc7chicago saying, “He’s educated. He’s a productive citizen. And I can’t get nobody to look for my son, to provide us with those same resources, with that same help. And that’s all I’m asking for.”

A tearful Nichole Schmidt, the mother of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito, is comforted by her husband Jim Schmidt during a news conference on Tuesday, September 28, 2021, in Bohemia, New York. Petito, 22, was slain while on a cross-country trip with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

Both the Petito and Day missing persons investigation were happening at the same time but unfortunately the national coverage was fixated on Petito. If there it was coverage of Day, it was largely confined to the Chicago area. Day would be found a little more than a week after he disappeared in the Illinois River in LaSalle County.

We would have less of these instances like Jelani Day if law enforcement / the government eliminated the stigmas they hold against people of color. Because in this instance, Day wasn’t a runaway, in a gang, or located in an impoverished area at the time. He was just a black adult male who went missing at the same time as Petito, a male who probably could’ve been found alive or his body found sooner.

Not only does this disparity of coverage degrade black life but it also paints a different picture for Petito.

She is not just a missing white woman who was an influencer on YouTube, she is a woman who dealt with onoing physical and mental abuse, all the while presenting a normal and inspirational life to her following until the bitter end.

If this doesn’t show that every name has a story behind it, then the world will continue to pass over those who are deemed less fortunate.

Karisma Boyd is a York College of Pennsylvania sophomore majoring in Mass Communications.