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“Missing White Woman Syndrome” Through the Lens of the Gabby Petito Case

By Allison Markman

New York City, New York

Soon, the internet began to take an interest in Petito’s disappearance, analyzing public information in order to figure out her whereabouts. (Photo credit: Christina Maxouris, CNN)

For the past few months, the disappearance of 22-year-old blogger Gabby Petito has dominated the media. The influencer had been documenting her “van lifestyle” on social media with her boyfriend Brian Laundrie, a prime suspect in her homicide.

Weeks after her vanishing, the FBI confirmed that human remains found in Wyoming were Petito’s. Since her disappearance, Laundrie presumably went into hiding, and his family refused to aid the FBI in their investigation. On October 22, the FBI discovered Laundrie’s remains in Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park in North Port, FL.

Petito and Laundrie had been traveling together in a van since June, recording their experiences and posting them on social media platforms. On the surface, the couple appeared happy. They posted pictures together, smiling and enjoying the hikes and food on their way to Wyoming. But suddenly the posts stopped, and Laundrie returned to his home in Florida. Two weeks after they had last heard from their daughter, Petito’s family reported her missing.

The family, through social media, enlisted the help of the general populace to progress their search. Soon, the internet began to take an interest in Petito’s disappearance, analyzing public information in order to figure out her whereabouts.

In August, officers responded to a dispute between the couple in which Landrie explained that the amount of time they spent together generated “emotional strain between them and increased the number of arguments.” The caller who reported the argument reported that a man (Laundrie) was repeatedly slapping a woman (Petito). She was then reported missing in September.

The heartbreaking story of Petito has shed light on the discrepancies in media coverage between Petito, a white woman, and the 710 Indigenous women that have gone missing in the very same area. Many have titled this phenomenon “missing white woman syndrome.”

In comparison, Black people in the United States make up a disproportionate amount of the missing persons list. Despite making up 13 percent of the population, Black people account

for just one-third of the list.

Mara Schiavocampo, of CNN, depicts this disparity through examples of missing Black women who did not receive nearly the same amount of media attention as Petito’s case has. In the past, Schiavocampo has referred to the case of Nikki Fitts, whose two-year-old daughter Ariana remains unfound today. “We are talking about representation,” she stated.

In Wyoming, the same state where Petito went missing, more than 700 indigenous women and girls have gone missing in the past ten years. Many critique the lack of knowledge around their cases vis-à-vis the hyperfixation of the Petito case. In a tweet, guest host of The View Ana Navarro said, “I just want there to be same interest and energy re every disappeared young woman in America — Brown, Black, Native American, transgender.”

The case of Gabby Petito is heartbreaking, and the media must be aware of racial bias in coverage for missing persons cases and work to ensure that it supports the search and rescue procedures of all missing people. “Missing white woman syndrome” is an ongoing issue, but the growing awareness around the phenomenon works to ensure that missing people are represented equally in the media, so they all can be found.


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