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OPINION: Gabby Petito coverage shows need for diverse newsrooms

By Setareh Jalali

It’s not often that a missing person sets the nation ablaze in the fight to search for them, as Gabby Petito’s case has these past couple of weeks. Since her disappearance in late August while on a two-month road trip across the U.S. with her fiancé, 23-year-old Brian Laundrie, authorities and at-home amateur detectives alike have been scouring her social media to find clues pointing to her fate.  

This past weekend, three weeks after her parents reported her missing, remains matching the description of Petito were found in Wyoming. Yesterday they were confirmed to be the young woman.  

Many critics have pointed to the fact that the national coverage Petito’s case has garnered is reminiscent of Missing White Woman Syndrome. A term coined by the late and great reporter Gwen Ifill at a 2004 conference for journalists of color, it refers to the disproportionate coverage of missing white women vs of missing BIPOC women.  

There are many different theories to explain this discrepancy in coverage, but the issue is quite simple when you break it down. Who gets to control the narrative in journalism? Whoever has power. Who largely has the power in journalism? According to a 2018 study, white males.  

It’s time we changed that for many reasons, but especially for those who have missing loved ones and wish so desperately that someone would listen to and help them.  

Bringing it back to Missing White Women Syndrome, research has found that it’s much more than just a turn of phrase — it’s a very real thing. Not only are black and indigenous women less likely to get media coverage when they go missing, they also go missing far more frequently than their white counterparts.  

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, of the estimated 613,000 people reported missing in the U.S. last year, about 60% were people of color. The report also considers Hispanic people to be white, so the actual number could be significantly higher if adjusted.  

There is especially an epidemic of disappearances for indigenous and black women and girls.  

As of 2016, the National Crime Information Center has reported 5,712 missing indigenous women and girls across the nation. Yet, the US Department of Justice’ missing persons database has only reported 116 of these cases. The same report indicated that only 30% of Indigenous homicide victim made the news, compared to 51% of white victims.  

According to the Black and Missing Foundation, although black women make up less than 7% of the U.S. population, they represent about 10% of all missing persons cases in the country. Similarly, a 2015 study found that although black children make up only 14% of all children in the country, they accounted for about 35% of missing children cases in the FBI’s database. Yet, they amounted to only 7% of media references. 

The reasons behind these inconsistencies in the media are numerous — at best, it’s an issue of pure collective ignorance; at worst, it’s the systemic racism that plagues our nation.  

One of the many problems, especially for missing black women, is the mischaracterization of their disappearances. Studies show that missing black women and girls are frequently misclassified as runaways or are stereotyped to have criminal ties that led to their disappearance, effectively removing the sense of urgency to respond.  

In the case of either, diversity in media outlets is the only way to ensure that the playing field can be leveled. While today the majority of newsrooms tend to be white and male, a diverse staff means a wide range of stories can be told with radical understanding and empathy for the victims who look like them.  

Even with the best of intentions, it’s clear that major news outlets have highlighted the story of a young, blonde, white woman more than they’ve ever highlighted the stories of women of color in similar situations.  

This article isn’t meant to list all the active missing person cases that concern people of color, there are plenty of articles that do so if you Google it. Rather it’s a challenge to media outlets to understand what it means to commit to reporting without bias, and whether they are really doing that. 

As Joy Reid said on her show The ReidOut, it’s important to note that these critiques have little to do with the late Gabby Petito herself.  

“It goes without saying that no family should ever endure that type of pain,” Reid said, “and the Petito family certainly deserves answers and justice.” 

But why don’t women of color deserve those same answers? Who’s fighting for their justice? Often, only their loved ones who are left to deal with their own grief while navigating communication with law enforcement on the case. 

The reason media coverage matters is obvious when you think about Gabby Petito’s case. Not only was her face pasted on every major news outlet, but regular folks on social media took to online sleuthing on Petito’s social media to try and uncover what happened to her in Wyoming. What if every missing person was afforded that same privilege?  

I bet we’d have a lot more people at home with their families still.  

By giving the voiceless a voice in journalism, we can change the narrative around missing persons from one that only cares about white women to one that considers every human life as worthy of safety and care.    

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