Petito story exposes ‘missing White woman syndrome’

Gabby Petito

Not all missing persons get the same attention

You probably know Gabby Petito’s story, the Florida resident who went missing while on a road trip with her fiancé. But what about Black women and girls who’ve gone missing from Minnesota?

The disappearance of Petito, which has tragically unfolded into a homicide investigation, has dominated the airwaves in recent weeks. Meanwhile, the names, faces, and sometimes equally tragic stories of Black girls missing from Minnesota and around the country have failed to pique the interest of American media in the same way.

But is the public’s fascination with the case fueled by an innocent and unbiased drive to pursue justice for Petito, or by a more complex social phenomenon—“missing White woman syndrome”?

The phrase “missing White woman syndrome” was coined by late journalist and PBS newscaster Gwen Iffill at the Unity Journalists of Color convention in 2004, when she joked, “If there is a missing White woman, you’re going to cover that every day.”

MSNBC host Joy Reid called out the disparate coverage of missing persons on an episode of the ReidOut on September 20. “The way this story has captured media attention has many wondering, ‘Why not the same media attention when People of Color go missing?’” she said.

Viewers nationwide have been delivered play-by-play updates about 22-year-old Petito, who was reported missing on September 11 after her boyfriend Brian Laundrie returned home to Florida without her from the couple’s cross-country road trip. The breathless coverage, delivered via television and social media feeds, extended overseas: 60 Minutes Australia aired an in-depth segment on the Petito investigation earlier this week.

Ultimately, public awareness and engagement in the case are what led to the discovery of Petito’s body. Shortly after a family of YouTubers, who were in the Grand Tetons at the same time as the couple, discovered they had captured the couple’s van on film and contacted the FBI, authorities announced remains were found a short distance from where the van was spotted. 

Patria Taylor Wallace

But the public has not been privy to information regarding the disappearance of 16-year-old Patria Taylor Wallace, who was last seen in Fridley in February 2021, and has therefore not been able to aid in the search for her. Authorities say the 5-foot-1 inch, 117-pound teen may have traveled to St. Paul. A record’s request submitted to the Fridley Police Department regarding the case was not returned.

Wallace is not the only Minnesota Black teen whose disappearance has slipped under the radar of media and public attention just this year. Judahia Pugh, 17, went missing from St. Louis Park on August 19 and has not been seen since.

Layla Bajinka, 12, disappeared from Edina on September 5, and Onjela Carter, now 16, has been missing for nearly a year after the Lakeview teen disappeared in October of 2020.

Onjela Carter

A 2010 study by Ohio State University researchers found that Black children makeup 33.2% of missing children cases but receive only 19.5% of news media coverage.

Bay Area newscaster Frank Somerville requested that local station KTVU allow him to add a short segment to discuss “missing White woman syndrome” and draw attention to the disproportionate coverage between Black and White missing persons as public fascination with the Petito case swirled. The anchor was suspended indefinitely. Mercury News reported Somerville, who is White, is the father of a Black adopted daughter.

The renewed public discourse about the way mainstream media constructs worthy and unworthy missing persons has catapulted lesser-known cases into the spotlight.

Carmen Bolden-Day, the mother of 25-year-old graduate student Jelani Day, had been searching for her son since he was last seen in Illinois on August 24. But it wasn’t until September 23, amid increasing interest and public pressure as the Petito case unraveled, that a coroner identified a body as belonging to Day. It had been found floating near the south bank of the Illinois River on September 4.

Layla Bajinka

On September 17, before she learned that her son had been dead for weeks, Day’s mother noted the difference in the way her son’s case has been handled by authorities and the media during a Newsy interview. “I know about Gabby, the missing girl. And she’s been missing for two days, and her face is plastered everywhere, and the FBI is involved.

“And I do not understand why Jelani doesn’t get that same coverage. Jelani doesn’t get that same attention,” she said.

Details about Day’s final days are scant. John Fermon of the Bloomington Police Department said of his death, “Foul play or not, it’s unusual.”

Data from the National Crime Information Center shows that 33.8% of missing persons reports in 2019 were for Black people, although the demographic makes up less than 14% of the population. While Black people are more likely to go missing, they are also less likely to be found.

A review of New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services records of all children reported missing in the period 2007–2010 showed Black children were twice as likely as non-Black children to remain missing at the end of researchers’ observational period.

Derrica Wilson of Black and Missing Foundation, who appeared as a guest on an episode of the ReidOut, told Reid during a discussion about missing Black people, “No one’s looking for us.”

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