I Don’t Want to Read Any More Articles About Missing White Woman Syndrome

Gabby Petito’s disappearance and murder has inspired approximately a million op-eds about “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” But is media actually ready to change?

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Stacy Lee Kong

Sep 24 2021

13 mins read

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Image: instagram.com/gabspetito


‘Everyone’ has been talking about aspiring #vanlife influencer Gabby Petito’s disappearance, which was ruled a homicide by the Teton County Coroner’s Office on Tuesday. “It was absolutely everywhere,” according to Vox. It “generated a whirlwind online,” says the Guardian. There was an “avalanche of interest in the case,” Buzzfeed explains.


On one hand, that’s true—on TikTok, there are dozens of Petito-related hashtags; the most popular, #gabbypetito, has been viewed more than 900 million times. On Instagram, there are 12,000 posts tagged with her name. And news outlets are devoting significant resources to covering this story, from CNN, which spent a full 16 minutes on the case during its Wednesday evening newscast, to the New York Times, which has published, by my count, 14 different news stories about Petito in the past seven days. The New York Post even made her their cover story three times in a week.

On the other hand, who do you think these media outlets are counting as ‘everyone’? Because to me, it looks like they just mean… well, young white women on TikTok.

 

Gabby Petito’s disappearance has inspired an unprecedented level of news coverage

 

I definitely don’t want to downplay the tragedy of her murder, the very serious reality of intimate partner violence or how ill-equipped the police are to deal with it. And it's not that I think we should pay less attention to Petito, or that it's weird to become emotionally invested in this tragedy. But I keep getting stuck on how media outlets have framed her disappearance and death—almost like a monocultural story, not a piece of local news. Remember when Game of Thrones was ending and all the cultural commentators were in a panic because it was probably the last TV show we’d all watch together and soon we’d be living in an era of cultural fragmentation? Well, the whirlwind of coverage around Petito, not to mention the coverage of the coverage, feels like an attempt to take us back to a time when everyone paid attention to the same things. And yes, I am deliberately making a comparison to entertainment here.


A large part of the reason why this story exploded into a days-long, border-crossing news cycle (that, let’s be real, isn’t going anywhere while Brian Laundrie, her travel partner and fiancé, appears to be on the run) is the unconscious bias that informs outlets’ editorial choices. According to Statistica, 543,018 people went missing in America last year, and you already know how many of them went viral like Petito. (Zero.) In fact, very few missing people ever go viral the way she has, and those that do overwhelmingly belong to the same demographic: white, cisgender, thin, young women from middle- and upper middle-class backgrounds. I mean, just think about the women and girls who became household names because they disappeared or died under mysterious circumstances: JonBenet Ramsey, Elizabeth Smart, Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway.

You may have seen a tweet about legendary journalist Gwen Ifill going around this week? That’s because she coined the term we’ve all been using to describe this phenomenon—Missing White Woman Syndrome—back in 2004. Her point was that people with multiple intersections (racialized, Indigenous, trans, poor) and even men who go missing rarely get the same level, or type, of coverage that pretty white women do. And there’s data to back that up. As California State University assistant professor Danielle Slakoff told the New York Times on Wednesday, “research, including my own work, has shown that white missing women and girls do receive more initial coverage and they do receive more repeated coverage… [What’s more] white victims tend to be portrayed as being in very safe environments, so it’s shocking that something like this could happen, whereas the Black and Latino victims are portrayed as being in unsafe environments, so basically normalizing victimization.” If you’d like an even more specific example: In Wyoming, that state where Petito disappeared, at least 710 Indigenous people vanished between 2011 and 2020, 466 of them women. And of that group, only 18% received any newspaper media coverage, much less days of multimedia coverage from national and international outlets.

News outlets have been taking their cues from social media sleuths

There’s also another reason this story went viral: newsroom decision-makers conflated popularity on social media with newsworthiness. Journalists run up against this all the time, myself included. In general, it’s very easy to get excited about the things our circles are discussing, but it's harder to figure out if something you’ve seen a bunch of times on social media, or that you noticed in your friend group, or that your kids are obsessed with, actually applies to a wider audience. And in this case, it was probably even harder to make that distinction because it wasn’t just three things making a trend; it was millions of people paying attention to an incident that has all the hallmarks of a compelling (read: click-worthy) story.

It’s not surprising that so many people glommed onto Petito’s story. As author Rachel Monroe pointed out in a super smart op-ed for the Washington Post on Thursday, “DIY sleuthing feels like work, which is exactly the point. In the face of tragedy, passivity feels awful. It’s especially true if, as is the case for many women attracted to true crime, you see elements of your own trauma refracted in the headlines. It’s much better to imagine yourself as helpful, the one person whose midnight scrolling might crack the case. Combine that with a dwindling lack of faith in law enforcement, and you get an army of online detectives.” (And we have to acknowledge that web sleuthing can go horribly wrong; one oft-cited example is Reddit users on r/findbostonbombers misidentifying Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who had been missing for more than a month—and who turned out to be dead—as the perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombing. Members of the subreddit even harassed the Tripathi family.) But internet obsessions don't doesn't always lead to such intense media coverage. Again, that's not to say Petito's case was unimportant. But what made it worthy of national importance, especially when most disappearances are not?

 

Petito’s social media presence also played a role. She wasn’t actually a travel influencer, but it did seem to be an aspiration of hers, Buzzfeed’s Stephanie McNeal reported earlier this week—and that definitely played a role in her story going viral. “She had made one YouTube video for her channel, Nomadic Statik, and had fewer than 15,000 Instagram followers before Sept. 13, when her profile first began being tracked by the analytics website Social Blade,” McNeal wrote. But “once she was on the road, she posted frequently to her Instagram account, carefully curating her feed and using hashtags like #vanlife… So, when the Petito family realized that her fiancé and travel partner, 23-year-old Brian Laundrie, had returned home without her and they reported her missing on Sept. 11, large swaths of her life were already available for public consumption.” Basically, the sheer abundance of content to engage with was catnip to other young, white women, who became obsessed with solving the mystery of her disappearance and, later, proving that Laundrie was her killer.  


Image: instagram.com/gabby.petito


But, Monroe argues, it wasn’t all altruistic hopes of bringing Gabby home, or, failing that, solving a crime. At some point, “all the sleuthing looks less like investigation and more like content creation… The drive for engagement drains the horror from the situation; newly created Instagram accounts shared information about the investigation in pastel colors and blocky, sans-serif fonts.”


Monroe is talking about @gabby.petito, an Instagram account that popped up on Sept. 15 and immediately began posting mostly text-based images in the same style as those social justice slideshows that proliferated on Instagram last year. It has 79,000 followers and drives traffic to wheresgabby.com, a site that compiles information related to the case, from “known facts” to audio of a bystander’s 911 call and police body cam footage. On its contact page, there’s an option to opt into the site’s email list for “updates, promotions, and more.” I don't know exactly what promotions means, but I do know that using a missing or potentially dead person's image for monetary gain is super sketch. And it’s not just the anonymous person behind this account and site. Plenty of people on TikTok grew their followings by creating content about Petito. Take comedian and writer Paris Campbell, for example. She was an early entrant into the Gabby Petito mediasphere who “was compelled to use her platform (around 150,000 followers on TikTok at the time) to try and reunite Ms. Petito’s parents with their daughter,” according to the New York Times. She’s posted 54 TikToks about the case—and increased her follower count by 160,000 people—since September 13.

 

Media outlets are acknowledging the gaps in their coverage, sure—but are they actually committed to changing?

To be fair, internet sleuthing, and building a brand around your ability to compile publicly available information, is not new. Vox points out that people on the internet have been coming together to obsess about crimes and mysteries at least since the creation of the Web Sleuths forum in 1999, and the disappearance of Maura Murray, a New Hampshire college student, in 2004, was likely the first example of a viral true crime case. Then came the so-called “true crime boom” of the 2010s, which coincided with the rising popularity of social media. Suddenly, mystery lovers didn’t just have a seemingly endless stream of podcasts, Netflix shows, documentaries and books to consume; they also had an actually endless variety of Twitter, Instagram and YouTube accounts, Reddit threads and message boards to follow, update and engage with. Women's obssession with true crime has even become a meme and a TikTok sound. A lot has been written about the ethical implications of our voyeuristic obsession with true crime, but what feels new with this case is how that obsession has travelled offline, both literally (crowds swarmed Laundrie’s parents’ home to protest Petito’s disappearance, which… is not actually what protesting means) and figuratively, as editors and reporters overwhelming looked to the platform du jour, TikTok, to guide their editorial decisions.  

All of this tangles together into our current discourse about Missing White Woman Syndrome and how media outlets can, and do, encourage the idea that some lives are worth more than others. There are real consequences to those editorial decisions, starting with the direct connection between the impulse to hyper-focus on the Gabby Petitos and to ignore the Jelani Days, Daniel Robinsons and Lauren Chos, all of whom are also missed by their families and deserve the same attention and care that strangers so easily bestow on young white women. And according to Jamil Stamschror-Lott, a social worker who talked to Health this week, seeing this inequity play out over and over again "contributes to the psychological impact of being devalued [which in turn] contributes to racialized imposter syndrome, battle fatigue, and many other different emotional and psychological symptoms. BIPOC folks, in particular, are being indirectly socialized to believe that their community at large does not support their humanity."

 

But even as publications admit they have a problem—as many have done, including the New York Times (twice), CNN, Yahoo News, ABC News, MSNBC, Rolling Stone, the Boston Globe, Newsweek, NPR, Daily Dot, Poynter, USA Today, Vice and the Los Angeles Times, among others—I don’t see a lot effort being made to change the way things currently work. Okay, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls have mainstream name recognition, but that's often as far as it goes. In pop culture and journalism, MMIWG are used as a talking point, but how often do we engage with the stories of individuals? Meanwhile, at least some of these outlets assigned their racialized employees to write those pieces I liked above, which are about the ways they fail those employees, not to mention their racialized readers, but as I’ve noted a time or two before, media outlets are not in a rush to promote or hire BIPOC editors, managers and other decision-makers who could at least begin the work of decolonizing the journalism they produce.

 

So yes, Gabby Petito's story is a tragedy, though unfortunately, it's not a unique one. But the reasons we've heard so much about her, when we don't hear about most people who go missing, aren't as innocent or altruistic as they seem.


And Did You Hear About…

 Awkwafina’s frankly embarrassing response to a (long overdue) question about her use of a ‘blaccent’ in previous projects.

 

Very Toronto-specific, but this wild story about the demise of Buca, a critically acclaimed, uber successful Italian restaurant that just like, never paid its bills.

 

The TikToker who explains 90s and 2000s pop culture to Gen Z.

 

Jennifer Hough’s appearance on The Real this week. Hough is the woman who is suing Nicki Minaj and her husband, Kenneth Petty, for harassment, and this interview is a hard but necessary watch. (Also worth reading: Jezebel’s deep dive into Minaj’s adversarial relationship with the press.)

 

This thoughtful feature on controversial advice columnist Dan Savage, which tackles both his attempts to make America more sex positive and the fact that he has also said a lot of anti-Black, fatphobic, transphobic and downright mean things over the past 30 years.

 

Bonus: Dating advice from Harry Styles.

 

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