Missing White Woman Syndrome amplifying media coverage in Gabby Petito case

Posted at 7:55 PM, Sep 24, 2021

The disappearance and death of Gabby Petito highlight a disparity in missing persons cases.

On Tuesday, officials confirmed Petito's body was found in Wyoming. A federal arrest warrant has been issued for her fiance, Brian Laundrie, who was last seen more than a week ago.

But the national attention on the case continues, and it's a familiar pattern.

It's called 'missing white woman syndrome,' defined as when excessive media coverage is given to mising person cases involving young, white, upper- or middle-class women or girls. It's a fascination University of Southern Mississippi professor Lindsey Maxwell says missing women of color don't receive.

"They just don't get the same kind of coverage, and they don't get that kind of emotional pull," explains Maxwell. "As we know, media is a reflection of the public's interest and so it all plays into larger issues like institutional racism, and just ideas of race and racism that we can't escape in our culture. It all kind of funnels down into missing white woman syndrome."

A month after developing her study at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the disappearance of Mickey Shunick started making headlines. Maxwell says it brought her research to the forefront.

"I remember, like, seeing pictures of her smiling. And, you know, her family was very active at that time and trying to get her found and get her brought home. And those are elements of visual framing, just humanizing someone, and expressing positive emotion toward them, and showing that they're a human being that their family wants them back and wants them safe and sound. And we just don't see that in coverage of other missing people," she states.

Maxwell says in order to stop repeating the cycle, coverage for cases needs to be balanced.

"When we have missing people that don't fit that description, we need to cover them in a humanizing way too. We need to understand their families and everyone that wants them to return safely as well. Focusing on those humanizing things the way that we do when we have a high-profile missing white woman syndrome case would really help to kind of balance that out."

Ultimately, Maxwell says, "We don't want to hate Gabby Petito, but we want to understand that there are other people with families out there who are missing that don't get this same kind of coverage."

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