Home News The Gabby Petito case renewed conversations about “missing white woman syndrome”

The Gabby Petito case renewed conversations about “missing white woman syndrome”

Her case is national news, but what about the other, mainly minority, missing persons never reported on.

On Sunday, the FBI discovered remains consistent with reported missing person, Gabby Petito. 

Autopsy results confirmed the remains found in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest are Petito’s. Her cause of death was ruled a homicide by the FBI. 

Petito’s case has taken social media by storm, the #GabbyPetito hashtag has over 500 million views on TikTok. 

Gen Z tends to obsess over true crime and this story is no exception. TikTokers have taken to the app to start sharing the facts of the case as well as address conspiracy theories on what really happened. 

Petito and her fiance, Brian Laundrie, were road tripping in a van during the summer. They posted frequently on social media using the hashtag #vanlife. Their white van became a hot topic of the case once the missing persons case began to trend. 

Towards the end of August, the couple’s posts halted. Laundrie returned to his home in Florida on September 1 in the white van sans Petito. 

On September 11, Petito’s family reported her missing. This is when the social media “detectives” began to tear apart the case. 

Authorities are currently searching for Laundrie who hasn’t been seen in a week. The search is taking place in his home state of Florida on a nature reserve where his parents reported he was going last. 

The FBI is involved in the case and has urged anyone with information to come forward. 

The case is incredibly public and has many eyes and ears fully gripped. However, it is a slap in the face to many when you look at the case of “missing white woman syndrome.”

Indigenous women go missing at incredibly disproportionate numbers and it is uncommon that their cases ever make mainstream media coverage. The U.S. Department of Justice found that Indigenous women face murder rates more than 10 times the national average. 

Petito’s case, while heartbreaking and incredibly important, has been a heavily discussed topic nationally. 

It’s the case of a white, blonde and blue-eyed woman whose photograph is making its rounds to every single mainstream media account multiple times a day. 

There is rarely ever justice or attention whatsoever for Indigenous women or women of color who go missing. 

The FBI had roughly 90,000 active missing persons cases in December of 2020, and over 45% of those cases were people of color. 

In Wyoming alone, there were 466 Indigenous women reported missing in the last decade. 

Wyoming’s Division of Victim Services discovered 18% of Indigenous women who were reported missing received media coverage. 

In an interview with Newsweek, Cara Boyle Chambers, the director of the Division of Victims Services, hoped the mass of attention over the Petito case will illuminate the other cases in the area. 

“Why haven’t Black and brown bodies received [the] attention that their white counterparts [have]?” Chambers said. 

Chambers also shared that the numbers are getting higher because the local police departments have begun to record and report more cases. 

This begs the question: why is reporting cases of missing Indigenous women only recently becoming important? 

Petito’s case is helping spur attention towards the other cases. Many mainstream media outlets, such as ABC, NPR and Insider, are reporting on Petito in conjunction with the disparity between white women and missing women of color. 

The root of the problem is the age-old question of “who decides what’s news?” 

Mainstream media outlets are often run by people who do not represent the communities they serve. In a survey taken by Neiman Lab in 2018, newsrooms were about 61% male and 84% white.

Whatsmore, it simply is not enough to just hire people of color in the newsroom but staff with agencies need to be people of color. It is vital that journalists with diverse backgrounds are in the room where it happens. There are plenty of experienced reporters and editors that deserve the agency and to be in charge of the high decision making processes. 

In order to get these cases of missing Indigenous, Black and brown people to have as much attention as someone who is young, blonde, and conventionally attractive, media outlets need to start looking at how they cover crimes. It is not a new problem, it’s an ugly, deep-rooted and incredibly American issue.

The culture of newsrooms needs to change in order for these cases to start getting the attention they so desperately deserve. Furthermore, it draws on the issue of how we get our news. 

Most Americans turn to mainstream media outlets like CNN or FOX to get their everyday dose of news. The issue with this is that when looking at these outlets they cover national problems, not local. 

Local news is dying and it needs to be revived. That is also another reason that no one hears about missing people in their own community. It can be daunting to keep up with all cultures on a national level and a resurgence and trust in local news is one way to remedy this. 

It is already a huge step that many news outlets, such as Reuters, KTLA and The Press Democrat, have been promoting the Petito case as a way to show how many other women of color are missing. This is a glimmer of hope for the culture of mainstream media to fix this issue of invisibility through silence. 

Sophia Ungaro
Sophia Rose Ungaro is Culturas resident writing intern. Ungaro hails from San Pedro, California. Growing up with a Navajo/Meztizo mother and a Sicilian father has given Ungaro a unique perspective on the world. In 2021 Ungaro will graduate from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in Journalism. Her beats are race, pop culture, and entertainment.
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