The investigation surrounding Gabby Petito’s disappearance and tragic murder has been marked by wall-to-wall media coverage. True crime journalists followed the investigation of this young White woman as it developed, documenting their theories and coverage on podcasts and Tik Toks every step of the way. Some Black and Indigenous families of missing persons and the activists that fight alongside them are frustrated. Many have pointed out discrepancies in the ways media and law enforcement respond to missing persons reports. Specifically, how missing BIPOC women and children receive significantly less media coverage and less help with search efforts. Lynnette Grey Bull, the founder of Not Our Native Daughters stated that “I think it`s — when we talk about — we talk about law enforcement, we talk about media coverage, if you don`t have blond hair and blue eyes, I mean, our stories do not make it to the six o’clock news. We barely make — get our story into the paper.” (The ReidOut). Grey Bull’s organization, Not Our Native Daughters, was created in hopes of raising awareness so that this doesn’t continue to be the case for reports of missing Indigenous women. Because of the lack of media coverage and minimal support from law-enforcement, communities of color have had to create their own search and awareness efforts. For example, journalist and activist Erica Rivers developed a site to track reports of missing Black women and created a platform for those stories to be heard.
Media Representation and Its Implications
This phenomenon isn’t unique to the Petito case and it has a name. Missing White Women Syndrome, coined by late newscaster Gwen Ifill, describes how cases of missing young, white women receive more media coverage and more dedicated law enforcement responses than similar missing persons cases where the only major difference is the victim’s race. This is especially unsettling when you consider that 710 Indigenous women have been reported missing in Wyoming between 2011 and 2020, where Petito was found. The trend also sheds light on how when missing and murdered Black and Indigenous people are covered by the media, and coverage differs greatly. Both social media users and major news outlets are playing a role in erasing these stories. These platforms are also being weaponized to maintain harmful narratives about victims of color.
A study published on the MMIW crisis in Wyoming found that the homicide rate for Indigenous women was 6.4 times higher compared to White women. Yet only 18% of newspaper coverage featured Indigenous female victims (Reuters). The coverage, when it did occur, frequently contained graphic descriptions of violence, minimal information, and negative portrayals of victims. This is another reason why the practice of media coverage in these situations is also problematic for people of color. When we contrast the silence around missing and murdered BIPOC women and the hyper visible stories of violence and crime in BIPOC communities, a problematic pattern emerges. This pattern further promotes the ridiculous notion that women of color must be monitored for crime rather than protected from it.
The contrast between silence and hyper visibility contributes to normalization and desensitization. When we depict stories of missing Black and Indigenous people as minor occurrences, it makes it seem as if the violence that is happening is okay. When there is no empathy reflected in the stories told about victims of color, it can desensitize people. Moreover, the silence normalizes violence against people of color by not centering victim’s stories in dignified ways. This normalization contributes to erasure because more violence is able to continue undetected. Silence allows perpetrators to commit harm with anonymity and immunity. This contrast is exactly the problem.
While media coverage for missing Indigenous and Black people is increasing, it still pales in comparison. Moreover, these issues are typically only discussed in relation to the disappearance of White women. This is why it is important for us to demand increased media representation and pay attention to issues like the MMIW crisis.
Media and its Relationship to Law Enforcement Response
Typically, the ways law enforcement responds can have disastrous impacts for people of color. Black MMIW activists have stated that at one point, some police departments were barely even tracking the reports of missing Indigenous women and girls (NPR). Moreover, there have been reports by Indigenous families of having to face overly bureaucratic and complex legal procedures to get justice (IHRLR). Legislation like the Savanna’s Act has passed to alleviate some of these barriers, but more interventions are needed to fully address the MMIW crisis.
Law enforcement has proven to be negligent when it comes to resolving missing person cases and has sometimes even contributed to people’s disappearance. So, solving this issue isn’t as simple as just having more law enforcement, especially when we consider the stark contrast between the police response during Gabby Petito’s disappearance, and the traffic stop shortly before her disappearance. Despite being visibly upset and there being reports of Petito’s partner assaulting her, police did not consider the situation as a “domestic assault” case when she and her partner were stopped (CNN). What if the traffic stop was treated with as much urgency as her disappearance? What if there were resources that both bystanders and Petito could turn to other than the police? What if we paid more attention to the abuse and mistreatment Petito experienced because of her partner?
Missing White Woman Syndrome is really about how the media only cares about violence when it can essentialize identity and repackage victims’ stories into soundbites and clickbait. It focuses more on sensationalism, rather than getting the public to interrogate why gender-based violence happens. These depictions in the media don’t get the general public to think critically about violence. Instead, Missing White Women Syndrome insinuates that crime and violence against women are individual cases, not a pattern. It oversimplifies the role of law enforcement and completely erases the ways they sometimes are complicit in violence. In turn, this promotes the idea that violence is better dealt with by implementing reactionary measures rather than comprehensive preventative ones.
This is part one of a two-part series on the topic.
Thamara Aridou, PAC Intern