Skip to content

‘Missing White woman syndrome’ ensnares media, law enforcement


Determining the value of a life

The missing person case of 22-year-old Gabby Petito almost overnight became an “above-the-fold” trending topic. At the same time, anger has cropped up among individuals on social media drawing attention to the countless missing men, women and children of color whose cases have largely gone under reported locally and nationally.

There’s a considerable list over the last few decades of “missing White women” who have drawn national attention, among them Natalee Holloway, Laci Peterson, Chandra Levy, Lauren Spierer and Holly Bobo. These cases were splashed across the headlines and were the focus of morning talk and true crime shows. Much farther back, the disappearances of Amelia Earhart and Amy Semple McPherson would become romanticized in American lore.

The traditional stereotype

Similar tragedies are sadly commonplace in a country where hundreds of thousands of people go missing every year. And yet the discovery of Petito’s body has triggered a staggering amount of interest. The disappearances of young White females—especially those who are relatively wealthy and fit traditional stereotypes of being attractive—receive far more media coverage than their minority counterparts. In images that Petito and her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, shared on social media, they were all smiles, barefoot in a canyon or marveling at the ochre of rocks at state and national parks. The quixotic disconnect between how the public viewed Petito’s road-tripping life and the tragedy of what occurred helped to fuel the fascination.

At roughly the same time frame that Petito went missing, 16-year-old Leivy Mariela Rodas disappeared from Londonderry Township, Pa. The Pennsylvania State Police began a search, of course, but the case languishes in obscurity because one girl was White, and the other is one of color. Daniel Robinson, a 24-year-old geologist from Tempe, Ariz., went missing June 23 after leaving his worksite in Buckeye. The case remains unsolved and, to date, there are no clues that explain why Robinson’s vehicle was found in a ravine just miles away from his job.

Dominating national attention

Some 46 percent of missing person cases in 2020 were not White, based on FBI statistics. Yet the news covers only about one-fifth of missing persons cases involving minorities, according to a 2016 analysis by Northwestern University. Such findings would lead to the curious complaint of “missing White woman syndrome,” a phrase coined by the late PBS anchor Gwen Ifill. It’s the tendency of media and national attention to focus solely on missing White women more than women or men of color.

For more than a century, White women’s cries—and lies—have galvanized law enforcement and lynch mobs to act on their behalf. When Congress passed the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910 (originally to combat sex slavery and human trafficking), law enforcement and investigators were often dispatched to “rescue” White women from places where they intended to be. White women who were living with Black men, immigrants, poor White men, or with other adult women in the sex trade were forcibly removed by authorities claiming to protect them. White women’s alliance with law enforcement may have stemmed from not just racism and racial privilege, but also women’s need for power and protection in a society that significantly restricted their social, sexual and economic liberty. There was no such “guardianship” for Black women.

The ‘damsel in distress’

“No one is looking for us,” said MSNBC journalist Joy Reid. “It goes without saying that no family should ever have to endure that kind of pain, and the Petito family certainly deserve answers and justice. But the way that this story has captivated the nation has many wondering why not the same media attention when people of color go missing?”

Some have explained the media’s focus on missing White women by pointing to society’s apparent obsession with “damsels in distress.” People are riveted by cases in which a young beautiful—and often blonde—girl has apparently been abducted by an evil-doer and is in need of rescue.

“The specifics of the story line vary from ‘damsel to damsel,’” said Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post. “In some cases, the saga begins with the discovery of a corpse. In other cases, the damsel simply vanished into thin air. But, of course, the damsels have much in common besides being female…a damsel must be White.”

Laci Peterson and LaToyia Figueroa

The 2002 disappearance of Laci Peterson was a huge story not only in San Diego but nationwide. In contrast, a pregnant Black woman named LaToyia Figueroa, who disappeared, was barely a blip in the national media, despite efforts by her family to enlist journalists’ help in finding her. Figueroa was found dead in 2005 in Chester, Penn. at the same time the media focused on Natalee Holloway.

Karen Drum, a writer with Washington Monthly, has reported on missing person cases. She said:  “According to a cable news employee who was willing to state the obvious on an anonymous basis, ‘We showcase missing, young, White, attractive women because our research shows we get more views. This is about beating the competition and advertising dollars.’”

There have been calls for more “equity” in reporting missing persons. Three years ago, the stories of missing Black and Latina girls sparked an outcry on Twitter and Facebook because there seemed to be a flurry of new cases that were being under-reported by local news in the Washington, D.C. area. The uproar prompted Black lawmakers in Congress to formally ask the Justice Department to do more to investigate what seemed like a spike in new incidents of missing Black girls.

The role of a biased media

Zach Sommers, a sociologist at Northwestern University, studies crime and said “there is a pretty sizable body of research” that shows that White people are more likely than people of color to appear in news coverage as victims of violent crime.

“There is relatively little coverage when it comes to missing persons of color,” he said. Summers analyzed the online coverage of such cases in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and “White women are much more likely to be the subject of news coverage relative to their proportions among missing persons, which drove up the number of articles about White women. By choosing to disproportionately highlight the experiences of Whites and women, these four news websites are implicitly—or perhaps explicitly—intimating that the cases of these individuals matter more.”

Summers further explained that the image of the “blonde and fragile” Petito—who needed “saving”—is a narrative that pervades American culture. “American culture has stronger associations with people of color and criminal acts. It’s not seen as noteworthy or newsworthy when a Black individual goes missing,” he said.

The controversy has brought to fore the coverage of missing indigenous women. In Wyoming alone, 710 indigenous residents were reported missing between 2011 and 2020. The population of Native Indian persons comprise only 3 percent of the state’s population, but have accounted for more than 21 percent of homicide victims over the past decade. Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, said the crisis “did start five years ago” but has been going on for “hundreds of years.”

Missing indigenous women

“We put out a report in 2018 which found that law enforcement agencies were either not collecting race nor the ethnicity of victims,” Echo-Hawk said. “We found that database systems that would default to White if race and ethnicity weren’t collected. Or [law enforcement] would visually look at somebody and decide what their race and ethnicity is. As a result of that, we are finding a complete underreporting.”

Coverage decisions are informed, consciously and less so, by a newsroom’s racial makeup. Most American newsrooms remain disproportionately White. This issue managed to catch the attention of editors at the Los Angeles Times where, in a 2005 news analysis, they revealed that the coverage of the Natalee Holloway disappearance should encourage more newsrooms to be more conscious of slanted reporting as criticism of the disparity of missing persons coverage has grown. In the 15 years since, there’s been little discernible change in coverage in majority-White newsrooms.

“Prejudices and stereotypes against indigenous people and people of color play out in underreporting,” Echo-Hawk said. “We hear stories of indigenous persons and those of color who attempt to report their loved ones missing, and officers will tell them ‘maybe she just ran away.’ ‘Was she out drinking?’ ‘Does she do sex work?’”

Echo-Hawk once worked with a  family of a missing young woman where three days went by as law enforcement debated who had jurisdiction in the case. Criminologists generally agree that the most important time in a search for a missing person is no more than 48 hours. After that, the case is often a recovery mission.

“During that precious time no search was instituted,” she said. “Nobody is listening to us. Nobody is looking for us.”