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Missing white woman syndrome: The case of Gabby Petito

By Daniel Lin Nov. 3, 2021

Beomhee Kim Art

The recent disappearance and homicide of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old woman from Blue Point, New York, prompted a revisit to the missing white woman syndrome—a term referring to the disproportionate media coverage of missing cases of white women compared to those of non-Caucasian women.

In June, Petito set out on a cross-country trip through the Midwest with her fiancé, 23-year-old Brian Laundrie, documenting their travels regularly on social media. In early September, Laundrie returned to his parents’ home in North Port, Fl.—without Petito—in the same van they left in and Petito’s family reported her as missing on Sept. 11. Laundrie left his home in the same week, with no confirmed reason or motive to date.

During the investigation, #GabbyPetito began trending on social media, amassing almost two billion views on TikTok alone. Numerous national media outlets, including The New York Times and National Public Radio, offered front-page coverage of her disappearance and potential domestic abuse by Laundrie. Amateur online sleuths dug for clues in possible sightings, police body camera footage, Petito’s last Instagram posts and the couple’s Youtube channel, Nomadic Statik.

In comparison, missing non-white women have received substantially less media attention and law enforcement response. A recent study completed by the University of Wyoming reported that in Wyoming—where Petito’s body was identified—710 indigenous people, mostly girls, went missing within the past decade. However, none received public concern and forensic investigation comparable to that of Petito’s case. Another report, published by sociologist Zach Sommers of Northwestern University, looked at the missing person cases covered by four online media outlets in 2013, revealing that half of the articles were of white women, who make up only about a third of the national population.

“The lack of attention brought to non-white women is unfair and racist. It makes them more susceptible to being kidnapped or murdered because offenders may feel less at risk when there is a low likelihood of being apprehended,” Junior Benjamin Sosnowski said.

Aside from the media, research has shown the mistreatment of minorities by the police. In a study on recorded police shootings, psychologist Cody T. Ross concluded that the probability of being black, unarmed and shot by police is roughly 3.49 times more than the probability of being white, unarmed and shot by police.

“The fact that both the media and the police have racial bias definitely points to systemic racism in our society. This problem cannot go ignored because of all of the negative effects it has on minorities,” Sophomore Matthew Rodrigues said.

Like Rodrigues, many see these issues as symptoms of a society embedded with racism and white supremacy, and they draw attention to this by supporting movements like Black Lives Matter. While some attribute the heavy media coverage on Petito’s case to her popularity and fame, statistics showing the media coverage discrepancy between missing cases of white women and women belonging to minority groups suggest that there remains a prioritization of white women within a plethora of institutions such as the media and law enforcement.


About the Contributors

Daniel Lin

Staff Writer

Daniel Choi is a freshman at Leland High School and a current artist for The Charger Account. Outside of school, he spends time practicing various art forms, playing tennis, and binge-watching shows at unbelievable speeds.

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