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‘Missing white woman syndrome’ highlights racial imbalance in media coverage of missing persons cases

'I want them to look for my child like they're looking for [Gabby Petito].'


Cecilia Lenzen


Posted on Sep 21, 2021   Updated on Sep 22, 2021, 11:13 pm CDT

With the disappearance of Gabby Petito making headlines across the nation, several critics and activists have taken to social media to discuss the disproportionate media coverage given to Black and Indigenous people compared to white people. It’s a phenomenon called “missing white woman syndrome.” 

Petito, a 22-year-old white woman, went missing while on a cross-country trip with her fiance, with Utah police reporting a “domestic problem” between the couple on Aug. 12. A body matching Petito’s description was found in a forest in Wyoming on Sept. 19. On Tuesday, the Teton County Coroner confirmed the remains to be Petito’s, and the manner of death was ruled a homicide.

The disappearance prompted obsessive speculation and internet sleuthing from TikTokers. While some said the coverage of Petito’s case was a positive thing that could lead to someone finding her, others added that it highlights a glaring racial imbalance in how missing persons cases are handled. 

For example, at least 710 Indigenous people went missing in Wyoming from 2011 to 2020, according to a report by the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous People task force published in January. Of the 710 people, 85% were children, and 57% were female. 

According to the report, 50% of missing Indigenous people are found within one week, and 21% remain missing for at least 30 days. Only 11% of missing white people remain missing for more than a month.

Several people online shared recent stories of missing people of color and criticized “missing white woman syndrome.” MSNBC anchor Joy Reid was one of those people.

While acknowledging that Petito’s family “deserves answers and justice,” Reid called out inconsistent media coverage when it comes to people of color during her show The ReidOut on Monday. 

“The way this story captivated the nation has so many wondering, ‘Why not the same media attention when people of color go missing?’” Reid said. “Well, the answer actually has a name: ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’—the term coined by the late and great Gwen Ifill to describe the media and public fascination with missing white women like Laci Peterson or Natalee Holloway, while ignoring cases involving people of color.”

Reid brought up the case of Daniel Robinson, a geologist who was last seen in June in Arizona. Several others have also pointed out Robinson’s disappearance in the wake of Petito’s case. 

Robinson’s father is reportedly still looking for him, and a GoFundMe page was created to help cover the cost of hiring a private investigator. 

Others shared similar cases, such as that of Jelani Day, on social media. Day, a 25-year-old grad student, reportedly went missing in Bloomington, Illinois, on Aug. 25. 

Day’s mother, Carmen Bolden, said in a Sept. 17 interview with Newsy that she didn’t understand why her son hasn’t gotten the same coverage as Petito.

“I want them to look for my child like they’re looking for [Petito],” Bolden told Newsy. “He is not a nobody. He is somebody and I want him to come back home.”

Mary Johnson, an Indigenous woman, went missing from the Tulalip Reservation in Washington state in December 2020. The FBI is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the “identification, arrest and conviction” of whoever is responsible for Johnson’s disappearance, according to a tweet posted Wednesday.

With “missing white woman syndrome” trending amid the aftermath of Petito’s disappearance and death, some white people are offended that race was even brought into question. But people of color argued that they weren’t “pulling a race card” but rather trying to raise awareness of a prominent issue affecting the lives of many people of color. 

“White people fail to realize we are not trying to take away from white women going missing. It’s a tragedy full stop. We are just pointing out that when people of color go missing the police are no help and the media ignores us,” Twitter user @majesticbeauty5, or Lashanda Walker, wrote on the app. 

Another Twitter user, @ehwhatdoiknow or Andrea, tweeted, “Missing white woman syndrome is legit whether it makes people uncomfortable or not. Nobody is or should be diminishing ANY woman being a victim but I personally would merely like to see the same energy directed when women of color go missing.”

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*First Published: Sep 21, 2021, 6:24 pm CDT