Missing White Woman Syndrome

September 29, 2021 News & Announcements

After the disappearance of Gabby Petito, the nation was turned upside down and into a state of chaos. It seemed like the entire world was talking about the case of the 22-year-old missing girl. The panic in the community spread through social media, and posts were made throughout the ongoing case trying to help find Gabby’s whereabouts. Unfortunately, Gabby’s case had a tragic ending—after FBI and authorities found her remains buried in the national park in Wyoming this past Sunday. The case is not yet over, as her fiancé—who is the prime suspect in Gabby’s homicide—has not been seen in over a week. Read the full story of Gabby Petito here.

The tragic case of Gabby Petito raises concerns about similar missing person cases across the United States. For countless other missing American cases, particularly non-white victims, public attention has been scarce. Why are so many missing person cases swept under the rug, or receive little to no attention in the news? For the last two weeks, you could not turn on the news without seeing Gabby Petito’s face. This seems to be the correct reaction to a person going missing. Yet, there are hundreds of cases as of now that are still unsolved, people still missing, without any of the publicity. Is this a case of the term now referred to as “Missing White Woman Syndrome”?

Missing White Woman Syndrome: What is it?

The term was originally defined by Gwen Ifill—journalist, TV newscaster, and the first African American woman to host a national news program on PBS. She coined the term at Unity in 2004, which is the biggest media conference for journalists of color. The conversation was about the phenomenon around the media’s extensive and obsessive coverage of white, upper-class girls and women who have gone missing.

Ifill gave a powerful statement during the event when referring to the issue of missing people in the media: “I call it the missing white woman search syndrome. If there is a missing white woman, you’re going to cover that every day.” Social scientists have found that there is a disproportionate amount of attention given to this category of women, in comparison to when lower-class women or women of color go missing.

The terminology and analysis created by Ifill was the beginning of a light being shed on this issue, and how the importance of race, gender, and class can play a role in how a case garnishes publicity by the media. Ifill has been given outstanding honors for her work, including the Peabody Award.

Michelle Jeanis, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisiana spoke to BBC regarding the newly resurfaced phrase. She addressed that there has been much research done on the relationship between a person who has gone missing and the media. Jeanis describes that there is a “cautionary tale framing” when it comes to white women who had gone missing, blaming it as being lucrative to the industry.

An issue with this is that it is reinforcing systemic social behaviors and biases, especially on social media. In the case of Gabby Petito, Jeanis tells BBC that she fits the typical description: “Young, beautiful, typically middle class, white woman [who] are incredibly newsworthy when bad things happen to them.”

In addition, a Northwestern University sociology professor—Zach Sommers—has further studied crime, specifically race and missing persons. Sommers says there is a sizable amount of research available that shows the difference between white people and people of color showing up in news coverage after going missing. According to his study conducted, white people are more likely to appear in news coverage as victims of violent crimes than people of color, which is especially relative when it comes to missing persons cases.

The 2016 study looked at every missing persons case covered by four online media outlets in 2013. There was a combination of national and international news sources, with differing demographics. The outlets included Star Tribune in Minneapolis, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and CNN.com. Sommers used the FBI’s national database to cross-reference the number of missing persons with the coverage on the included media outlets.

The conclusion of the study reaffirmed what had already been assumed: that white women were much more likely to appear in the coverage of national and international news for a missing persons case. Women in general were also much more likely to be covered than men. Sommers gave the comment that although white women make up 1/3 of the nation’s population, “half of the articles in the data set are just about white females alone.”

All a Distraction?

A video of Fox News contributor Raymond Arroyo has gone viral and landed him under fire. Arroyo was recently a guest on the news show and gave a controversial comment about the Gabby Petito case being a “huge distraction” from political issues. The video spread rapidly on the social media app TikTok after user Morgan S’more posted it on Sunday.

Included in the video is Arroyo giving the following statement:

 “With all that’s happening in the world, what’s happening in our southern border and abroad and at home, I think the entire story is a huge distraction, forgive me. This is like a lifetime movie, an ongoing mini-series for America but I think it’s basically a local story, it’s a missing person. I hope they get to the bottom of it, but I do worry we’re spending way too much time on this case.”

Many angry responses arose after the clip was released, especially since it was the same day that the FBI found the body that was believed to be Gabby Petito’s. Comments on the TikTok post called out Arroyo for caring more about his agenda being distracted than a girl who had gone missing. Arroyo’s response was to share the FBI list of missing children and adults who “get little coverage.” Another TikTok user commented on Arroyo’s post by saying that Gabby’s case is the newest manifestation of the Missing White Woman Syndrome.

Other Missing Cases Now Being Reviewed and Made More Public

After the worldwide attention of the Gabby Petito case, officials have come forward requesting the same level of attention to the thousands of other cases of missing persons. FBI data of the 2020 NCIC Missing Person and Unidentified Person Statistics highlights how large of an issue people going missing in the US has become. In 2020, there were more than 540,000 people who had gone missing. Over 340,000 of those were missing juveniles.

In addition, the FBI have compiled a list of 43 active missing person cases who are under 21-years-old. They are working towards fresh leads, even for the ones that go back decades. For the full list of 43 unsolved missing person cases of people under the age of 21, click here.

In response to the Gabby Petito case, here are just a few of the missing person stories who are still hoping for answers, and are starting to be re-reviewed after the Gabby Petito case:

  • Daniel Robinson – 24-year-old military veteran has been missing since June 23rd, 2021. Daniel was a geologist and was last seen at his work site in Buckeye, Arizona. Daniel was born without his left hand, but his father remarks about how it never stopped him from playing sports, joining the military, and pursuing his dreams of becoming a geologist.

Daniel’s father has been the main person searching for Daniel after the trail went cold two months ago. The last evidence found was an empty vehicle that had gone off into a ravine. The Buckeye police have sent out off-road vehicles, search dogs, and drones, but have been unsuccessful. Daniel’s father has moved to Arizona to continue his own search—creating a GoFundMe page and conducting search operations for the last seven weeks with over 200 volunteers.

Daniel’s father gave a comment to BBC comparing the Gabby Petito case to his son’s: “To become a national story, to have the FBI and other agencies working on it, it’s everything I wanted for my son. The sad part is the family had to grieve the outcome [her death], but they have a little sense of closure. I don’t have any.”

  • Lauren Cho – 30-year-old music teacher went missing on June 28th, 2021, after last being seen leaving her friend, Cody Orell, at the bus stop. Orell claims that Cho seemed upset about something but didn’t think much of it at the time and didn’t want to seem pushy.

Cho had recently quit her job and had decided to go on a cross country trip with Orell in a converted bus. Cho’s plan was to start a food truck once they reached their final destination in Bombay Beach, California. On the day she was last seen, Cho had left their bus with no phone, food, or water. There was a search team and helicopter to look for Cho, but she unfortunately remains missing.

The Gabby Petito case has obviously brought more attention to the Lauren Cho case, given their similar details. Gabby Petito was also on a cross country trip with her fiancé, and he had said she had gone missing. There is now a Facebook page called “Find Lauren Cho” with the post: “We realize that on the surface, the public information for both cases share similarities. Ultimately, these two cases are NOT the same and the differences run deeper than what meets the public eye,” and then concluded, “Somebody knows something.”

Although these are just two examples, there is an overwhelming number of missing persons in the United States, most of who receive little to no publicity in the news. The Missing White Woman Syndrome may be causing a large gap in the exposure of cases. If gender, race, and class all play a role in the media’s decision of which missing persons receive the limelight, it can be limiting in helping the staggering number of missing person cases. Because each missing person’s case is equally as important, to try and find the person and help the grieving families. Hopefully, the Gabby Petito case raises more concern on the remaining cases.

Helpful Resources for Missing Persons

Here is a list of helpful resources for missing persons in the United States:

  • NamUs – The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System is an information resource center for missing, unidentified, and unclaimed person cases across the US.
  • National Center for Missing & Exploited ChildrenThis is a national nonprofit reporting center for any issues related to the prevention of and recovery from child victimization, abduction, abuse, and exploitation.
  • Search for Missing ChildrenCase details and photos posted from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
  • FBI’s Kidnapping and Missing Persons Investigation – Page where law enforcement authorities looking for information which may lead to the location of the missing individuals listed.
  • Black & Missing Foundation – A non-profit organization focused on bringing awareness to missing persons of color and providing vital resources and tools to missing person’s families and friends to educate the minority community on personal safety.

This article was written by Karissa Key

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