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America’s fascination with missing white women

By McKenzie Ward

For the past couple of weeks, many of us, including myself, have been glued to our phones waiting for updates about Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old van-life influencer who took a four-month road trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, when she was reported missing Sept. 11 by her family, according to The New York Times.

On Sept. 19, it was announced that a body was found in Teton County, Wyoming that ?t Petito’s description, according to The Times. On Tuesday, Sept. 21, it was confirmed that the body was Petito’s, and the death was ruled a homicide. Laundrie is currently named a person of interest but not a suspect.

As of Sept. 23, a federal arrest warrant has been issued for Laundrie for his use of unauthorized devices, according to The Washington Post. He allegedly used a debit card and PIN numbers for two bank accounts that did not belong to him to obtain more than $1,000, according to a court filing released by the Denver FBI branch on Sept. 23.

As of Sept. 23, Laundrie is still missing and authorities are attempting to locate him.

While my heart breaks for Petito’s family and friends for their loss, the way this case has been portrayed by traditional media and on social media is a perfect example of “Missing White Woman Syndrome.”

This term was coined by PBS anchor Gwen Ifill to describe the media’s fascination with the

disappearance of white women and how often, when a white woman disappears, her case receives more interest from the media than other missing persons cases.

Young, white, upper-class women and girls who go missing often receive a disportionate amount of traditional media attention concerning their cases, while the missing person cases involving men, lower social classes, and other races go unnoticed by the traditional media and society.

This was brought up Monday evening by MSNBC host Joy Reid, who believes the fascination with the Petito case is a result of “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” She argues that traditional media is “ignoring” missing persons cases involving people of color such as Daniel Robinson, a Black 24-year-old who has been missing since June and was last seen in Arizona.

Since Petito’s disappearance was first reported, traditional media and social media have been flooded with information about her disappearance. It seems as if I could never escape seeing Petito’s name no matter where I went – Instagram, Twitter, TikTok – any news site.

Everyone and anyone has turned themselves into a detective looking for new clues that could lead to a new break in her case.

And while we all can agree the media attention helped authorities locate Petito’s body, it raises the question: “Why isn’t every missing person’s case treated like this one?”

At the end of 2020, the FBI reported that they had over 89,000 active missing persons cases, and 45% of them were people of color.

However, only a fifth of missing person cases involving a person of color are covered by the news, according to a 2016 analysis published in The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

What will it take for the traditional media and our society to bring attention to every missing person’s case?

How do we determine which cases are “worthy” of national attention?

I’m not diminishing any case of a person disappearing – and nobody should be. Rather, I am arguing that the amount of energy that has been put into the Petito case should and needs to be put into every case of a missing person, whether they are male or female, Black or white, upper- or lower-class.

Gabby deserved to return home safely to her family.

Every missing person deserves to return safely to their family.

Every family should be provided with closure and should not have to lie in bed at night wondering where their loved one is.

Something needs to change.


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