How one woman’s disappearance highlights a persistent problem
It seems like anyone who has access to social media has heard about Gabby Petito – the tragic story of an Instagram blogger killed by her fiancé after traveling cross-country in a van. The story consumed users on every platform, including TikTok and Instagram. When the news first broke of Petito’s disappearance, social media users turned into detectives in order to try and solve the mystery. People were quick to point fingers at Petito’s boyfriend, who has been missing since Petito’s body was found. Gabby’s disappearance received widespread attention in the news, likely contributing to the quick recovery of her body.
While Gabby Petito’s death is tragic, the media attention that surrounded it is one we have seen before. A white woman goes missing, a huge media storm erupts surrounding her disappearance, and she is (usually) found soon after. The amount of news coverage that Gabby has received has caused many to point out “Missing White Women Syndrome,” which is defined by the heavier media attention White women and girls receive when they go missing compared to anyone outside of those demographics, according to a study published by the Northwestern University School of Law in 2016.
In the United States, Black people account for a third of active missing cases in the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database, despite only being 13 percent of the population. Native Americans also appear on the list disproportionately. And yet the news rarely covers these cases and families are often forced to take matters of search and rescue into their own hands. According to CBS, “In Wyoming, where Petito’s body was found, 710 Indigenous people have disappeared from 2011 to September 2020. According to a report by the University of Wyoming, 12 of those cases were covered by local media, which covered 35 of 3,837 cases of missing White people during that period.”
White women do not have their identities picked apart during investigations. Meanwhile, when doing research for this article, I found that police and investigators were much more likely to include unnecessary information – including one’s history of drug use, sexuality, and criminal background – when investigating the death or disappearance of a Person of Color. White women go missing and we are shown the edited photos that they post on their Instagram. A person of color goes missing and, if it is even covered in the news, it’s an old yearbook photo or a mugshot from the single time they were arrested in 2004.
Not only does Gabby Petito’s case highlight how people of color go unnoticed by media coverage, but it also shows how law enforcement need to have trained domestic abuse staff. In bodycam footage from a domestic dispute between Petito and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, it is clear that Gabby Is in an unsafe situation. She repeatedly invalidates herself and justifies Brian’s treatment of her, all common signs of abuse. Rather than telling the police the full extent of Laundrie’s violence towards her, she blames herself for his abuse and offers up excuses for her abuser. Though the cop in the video was trying to get Gabby to tell him the whole story, he did not have the proper training or knowledge that someone like a social worker might have to handle the situation.
While this problem is widespread and persistent, there are small things that everyone can do to help. For one, share the names and stories of people involved in under reported cases. If you see information about any missing person in your area, share it with friends and family. And finally, we are constantly learning and unlearning the subtle ways that racism penetrates our everyday life. Do not let yourself fall into a comfortable position of ignorance.