Gabby Petito: Another Case of “Missing White Woman Syndrome”


A screenshot from the Black and Missing Foundation website shows the disproportionate number of missing people who are persons of color. The foundation notes that most media attention focuses on missing white women. Source: Black and Missing Foundation

Olivia Schlieman, Guest Writer

Yes: Gabby Petito was murdered. Yes: she deserves justice. Yes: the public has a right to investigate. No: she is not the only one. 

Nearly 40 percent of missing persons in the US are people of color. It’s hard to believe, considering the content of “breaking news” in the United States. The public only knows what they are told, and here lies the disparity. Every missing person, no matter what race, deserves to be in the spotlight. They deserve a chance to be found, before it is too late.

On September 11, 2021, Petito was reported missing when she didn’t return home from a cross-country road trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. Of course, her parents expressed concern, questioning Brian’s role in her disappearance. However, so did the rest of the United States. According to Jeremy Barr from The Washington Post, Petito was mentioned 398 times on Fox News, 346 times on CNN, and 100 times on MSNBC in seven days. Back in September, it was nearly impossible to turn on a local news channel and not hear the name ‘Gabby Petito’ at least once. 

Petito was only twenty-two. She had blonde hair, blue eyes, and a social media following. She had a bubbly personality and a vibrant smile. Most importantly, she was white. The concept of inequality in race is not new, and Petito’s case only highlights the concerning injustice.

In the last decade, seven hundred indigenous women were reported missing in Wyoming, where Petito disappeared. Yet, almost none of them made national news or sparked the interest of millions. 20 percent of the cases remained unsolved after a month, a crucial period for finding a missing person. But we can’t blame ourselves; we only know what we are told.

“Missing white woman syndrome” refers to extensive media coverage on missing-person cases involving young white women. When the news covers a missing-person investigation, the public sympathizes with them and their family. In this sense, they are humanized. We may feel attached to the case and involved in the search. When there isn’t the same amount of media coverage on people of color, it automatically gives them an unfair advantage. They are not humanized nor individualized; they are neglected.

On June 15, 2021, Ella Mae Begay was reported missing in Sweetwater, Arizona. Attempting to find this sixty-two-year-old woman, Seraphine Warren, her niece, organized searches across the Navajo Nation. However, there was not enough money to pay for gas and food to feed volunteers. She is still missing. Those that are close to her need closure. But the news failed. 

Begay is an indigenous woman who weaves rugs. She has a family. She has a right to be found. 

It’s impossible not to recognize the benefits the extensive media coverage had on Petito’s case. Her body was found, her fiancé’s body was found, all within two months. We don’t know if the case would have succeeded if it didn’t spark public interest, but we know that other families deserve the same opportunity. The public will always choose which stories to fixate on, but equalizing news coverage widens the lens on missing-person cases.

As a seventeen-year-old high school student, I am guilty. Almost every day in September, I logged on to social media researching Petito, trying to understand her situation. I was fascinated by her tragedy. I couldn’t pinpoint why this case gained so much of my attention. Now, I realize that it was because I followed along on the news. Every day I learned new information. But was this necessary? Did the extensive amount of time Petito’s case on television affect the outcome of her case?

“Missing white woman syndrome” also brings a new question into light: family closure. Begay’s niece goes to sleep every night, knowing more can be done to help find her aunt. She is unaware of her aunt’s whereabouts and condition. Will she ever be found?

As of now, this question can not be answered. Because Begay’s case receives little news coverage, the public doesn’t know about her. They don’t see her as a legitimate human being. In Petito’s case, she was seen as a young woman with more life to live. These two contrasting situations have nothing to do about the character of the missing person and everything to do with their race.

“Missing white woman syndrome” is not new, and more needs to be done to give every U.S. citizen, no matter their race or gender, an equal opportunity to be found.