The Media Today

The circular reckoning over ‘missing white woman syndrome’

October 14, 2021

On Tuesday night, Chris Cuomo opened his show on CNN with an update on the case of Gabby Petito, a twenty-two-year-old travel blogger who went missing and whose body was found last month in Grand Teton National Park, in Wyoming. Brent Blue, a coroner in the case, had just ruled that Petito was strangled three to four weeks before her body was recovered—a finding, Cuomo said, that suggested a “crime of passion” and made it “more important than ever” that police find Brian Laundrie, Petito’s fiancé, who is a person of interest in the case and currently unaccounted for. Cuomo invited a lawyer and a pathologist to discuss the case; he asked the latter how, exactly, a person dies by strangulation and how long it typically takes, and the former about the prospects for Laundrie’s arrest. “Prosecutors have to make the case, every time out, beyond a reasonable doubt,” Cuomo concluded. “This isn’t about canceling somebody. This is about convicting them for a major felony.”

The segment may have been grotesque, but there was nothing unusual about it—for almost a month now, Petito’s story has driven intense interest across the mediasphere. The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr calculated that, in one seven-day span in September, her name was mentioned nearly four hundred times on Fox News, three hundred and fifty times on CNN, and one hundred times on MSNBC; the coverage has tailed off a bit since then, but many outlets, not least CNN, are still treating developments in the case, such as the coroner’s findings, as a major story. The sheer volume of coverage has revived an old complaint that has itself driven a lot of coverage: that the media pays disproportionate attention to telegenic white victims of such crimes while erasing victims of color, a trend that the journalist Gwen Ifill once named “missing white woman syndrome.” Journalists at outlets across the ideological spectrum—from Joy Reid, on MSNBC, to Grant Stinchfield, on Newsmax—drew attention to the disparity; Frank Somerville, an anchor at KTVU, in San Francisco, was suspended after moving ahead with plans to mention it on air, over his bosses’ objections. The family of Jelani Day, a Black graduate student who was later found dead in Illinois, called out the comparative lack of attention around his case; the relatives of Native American victims in Wyoming made similar points. Joseph Petito, Gabby’s father, called on journalists to help other missing people. During his press conference on Tuesday, Blue, the coroner, said that the Petito story has become “a media circus,” and that it’s “unfortunate” that other deaths involving domestic violence don’t get the same coverage. Interviewing Blue on CNN, Anderson Cooper said that his point was “well taken,” then quickly returned to Blue’s invocation of domestic violence, in case he’d just broken some news in the Petito case.

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None of this is remotely a new phenomenon. As Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote late last month, the archetype of the “maiden in peril” has deep roots in ancient myth; in the American context, it can be seen in the alarmist tales of Native Americans abducting white women at the frontier and in the breathless newspaper coverage of various missing-persons cases around the turn of the twentieth century. “The scandal-mongering ‘yellow journalists’ of the 1890s designed the storytelling templates modern newspapers and cable networks still rely on,” Shafer noted, with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal going so far as to itself break a Cuban woman out of jail ahead of the Spanish-American war. In 2004, the year that Ifill coined the phrase “missing white woman syndrome,” the comedian Jon Stewart expressed it as a mathematical formula (“Minutes of coverage = Family Income x (Abductee Cuteness ÷ Skin Color)2 + Length of Abduction x Media Savvy of Grieving Parents3”). In 2016, a scholar at Northwestern University subjected the trend to a rigorous empirical analysis that bore it out. This year, researchers in Wyoming identified severe disparities in both the quantity and quality of coverage of missing and murdered Indigenous residents of the state. Since 2000, fewer than a third of Indigenous homicide victims had their stories told, and those that were covered were more likely to be portrayed in a negative light. Missing Indigenous people were more likely to be covered only after they had been found dead.

Numerous explanations have been posited for missing white woman syndrome. Cable networks like to fill airtime with stories that will get good ratings. As NPR’s David Folkenflik pointed out, Petito’s story presented “strong narrative elements” given that she had documented her travels extensively on social media; her digital footprint enticed amateur online sleuths—emboldened not just by influencer culture but by the recent explosion of the true-crime genre—to treat the case like a solvable mystery, which in turn drove more coverage. “We in the media have a responsibility to rectify the harm caused by our habitually reinforcing the notion that non-White and LGBTQ lives don’t matter,” the Post’s Karen Attiah wrote. “But all of us as digital citizens can do better, too. We’ve seen the power of social media in forcing an issue into the public square.” A lack of newsroom diversity is also to blame, especially at the levels with the most editorial power. As Reid put it, “if the woman who’s missing looks like your own daughter or granddaughter, and you’re a newsroom executive, you’re going to gravitate more toward it.”

All of these explanations—and they needn’t be mutually exclusive—involve racist assumptions and structures not just in the media business, but in society as a whole, so it’s no surprise that missing white woman syndrome has broader social and cultural drivers, too. The trend “is reflective of the dominant ideology of white supremacy,” Carol Liebler, a professor at Syracuse University, wrote recently. “It’s not just that Gabby Petito was white: she fit societal beauty standards in terms of age, weight, fitness and even hair color,” Liebler added, noting that she once asked journalism students to rank pictures of missing children by attractiveness and found that those perceived as being most attractive got the most coverage. Last year, meanwhile, a study by Liebler, Wasim Ahmad, and Gina Gayle found that police departments are the “primary gatekeepers” in reporting on missing teens. As one journalist acknowledged, “if we get the information from the police, then we put it up immediately,” whereas “if we just hear about it from a family, we will call the police and see whether there’s been a report filed.”

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Lynnette Grey Bull, who founded a group in Wyoming that advocates for missing and trafficked Native Americans, told Barr, of the Post, that she sees a possible “silver lining” in the coverage of Petito and criticism that it sparked: “I’m hoping and praying,” she said, “that we’re in a moment where we are able to make a shift.” Since Petito’s case garnered national attention, we have indeed seen major news outlets start to include the names of missing people of color and trans people—Day, Daniel Robinson, Victoria Gonzalez, Aubrey Dameron, and others—in the conversation, in addition to deeper explanations of how and why people go missing.

This too, however, is a well-worn cycle. Unless news organizations put concrete, long-lasting practices in place now to correct for their biases—from prioritizing diversity to deprioritizing the word of law enforcement in coverage—we can expect this round of missing-persons coverage to peter out, and to have the same discussions the next time a missing white woman attracts disproportionate media attention. As Liebler put it, “we should not be satisfied” with the present self-reflection since we’ve seen it all before. As Nikole Hannah-Jones, of the New York Times Magazine, put it, “I wish I could say that we learn our lessons. But we largely don’t seem to learn our lessons. And we have these same scenarios that seem to occur again and again.”

Below, more on Gabby Petito, missing white woman syndrome, and journalism:

  • “Complicated reasons”: As Petito’s case started to attract massive attention and amateur sleuthing on social media, Kelli Boling, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has studied the true-crime genre, told Adriana Gómez Licón and Lindsay Whitehurst, of the Associated Press, that “there’s a lot of different complicated reasons that people are drawn to it, and it’s not all sinister or malicious or creepy.” Some people who become fascinated with cases like Petito’s, Boling said, are themselves survivors of domestic violence who are drawn to them “from a place of healing, or from a place of wanting to find justice for the young lady.”
  • “Missing in Kansas”: Last week, Matt Pearce, of the LA Times, highlighted Liebler’s research and also the work of Annette Lawless, a journalist for KAKE-TV, in Wichita, who started “Missing in Kansas,” a project that aims to cover as many missing-persons cases in the state as possible. “Rather than picking and choosing which cases are most sensational,” Pearce wrote, “Lawless’ project is less subjective and more democratic: In segments that air every weekday in the morning and evening, she covers all sorts of missing-persons cases, whether they’re young, old, white, Black, Latino, male, female, whether they were abducted, whether they’re runaways, whether they’re rich, whether they’re poor.” Liebler described the project as “a model for other news organizations.”
  • “Officials say”: In 2019, Alexandria Neason wrote, for CJR, about journalists’ credulous overreliance on police departments for information, which officials have often exploited to plant misinformation in the press. “In relaying information about a crime in which an officer may have been at fault, brand management becomes a priority,” Neason wrote. “Victims—who more often than not are Black—have long listened to police with skepticism, expecting misinformation about themselves and their communities. Journalists have struggled to tell the whole story.”
  • “An apology”: As the Petito case became a story, police released bodycam footage from an August traffic stop involving Petito and Laundrie in Moab, Utah; it showed Petito in tears and Laundrie saying that they had been fighting. Not long after that incident, Kylen Schulte and Crystal Turner, a missing same-sex couple, were found shot to death near Moab. Their case, which remains unsolved, initially attracted little attention; after Petito went missing, there was some speculation that the cases might be linked, but police eventually ruled that out. The Moab Times-Independent did cover the murders of Schulte and Turner, including in a story that centered gruesome details. Afterward, Doug McMurdo, the paper’s editor, apologized to the local community. “We should have crafted a less striking headline, a more thoughtful report on what we read,” he wrote.

Other notable stories:

  • Going forward, Facebook said that it will recategorize journalists and human-rights defenders as “involuntary public figures”—differentiating them from celebrities who actively sought a public profile and offering them the protections against harassment that private citizens enjoy on the platform. Reuters has more. Elsewhere, the father of Alison Parker—a journalist in Virginia who was killed during a live TV broadcast, in 2015—complained to the Federal Trade Commission that Facebook has failed to stop footage of the murder from circulating on its platforms. And, after a whistleblower leaked documents from an internal messaging network to the press, Facebook made parts of the network private. The news (of course) leaked out to Ryan Mac, of the Times.
  • Earlier this week, Jon Gruden resigned as coach of the Las Vegas Raiders football team after the Journal and the Times reported on bigoted emails that he sent to Bruce Allen, the former president of the Washington Football Team, while working as an analyst on ESPN. According to the LA Times, several of the emails were filed as exhibits in a court case alongside correspondence between Allen and various journalists, one of whom, ESPN’s Adam Schefter, once referred to Allen as “Mr. Editor” and sent him a draft of an unpublished story (which journalists are not supposed to do). In a statement, Schefter denied ceding editorial control to Allen, but acknowledged that he had made a mistake.
  • In other please don’t do this news, Katie Couric will reportedly admit, in a forthcoming memoir, that—after interviewing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the then Supreme Court justice, in 2016—she edited out derogatory comments that Ginsburg made about athletes taking the knee during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice. Couric writes that she was “conflicted” because she was a “big RBG fan” and thought the comments “unworthy of a crusader for equality,” the Mail reports. Couric says that her friend David Brooks, a columnist at the Times, advised her that Ginsburg likely misunderstood the question.
  • Recently, Samuel Alito, also a Supreme Court justice, gave a speech in which he bashed media coverage of the court, taking specific aim at an article in which Adam Serwer, of The Atlantic, savaged justices’ decision to gut abortion rights in Texas without hearing oral arguments. This week, Serwer hit back. Alito “wanted to act like a GOP-primary candidate and wag his finger at the press,” he wrote. “I have had more honest interlocutors on Twitter, people whose handles were puns on bodily secretions.”
  • Research led by Jonas Heese, a professor at Harvard Business School, found that corporate crimes—including pollution, workplace-safety infractions, and fraud—are more prevalent in areas where the local newspaper has closed. Heese found that “after a newspaper shuts down, violations at publicly listed companies in the paper’s circulation area increased by 1.1 percent and penalties from regulators rose by 15 percent.”
  • Yesterday, the Times announced the creation of a new department with oversight of newsroom culture and career development at the paper. Carolyn Ryan, a deputy managing editor, will oversee the team along with Vivian Toy, Keiko Morris, Charo Henríquez, Ted Kim, Charlotte Behrendt, Sharon Chan, and the paper’s HR staff.
  • This week, the union representing staffers at BuzzFeed News reached two tentative agreements with management, one of which grants employees the right not to come into the office should certain conditions make it unsafe. Those conditions include “ghosts.”
  • And Slate’s Cameron Wilson tracked down The Worst Person You Know, of meme fame, and he turned out to be “the Worst Person you could speak to for a story like this.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.