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Missing White Woman Syndrome: How Do We Fix It?

Oct. 19, 2021, 8:01 AM

Gabby Petito’s disappearance has fascinated American and international audiences alike, with her case dominating news headlines across the world. As interest in the case spiked both in the news industry and on social media, commentators began to wonder aloud why Petito’s case, and not the hundreds of thousands of other missing persons cases that occur each year in the U.S., garnered so much media coverage.

Some have speculated that the interest in Petito’s case is the result of what journalist Gwen Ifill first termed “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” or the idea that young White women and girls who go missing—especially stereotypically attractive blonde women and girls who come from privileged backgrounds—are more likely to be covered in the news than missing persons of other demographics.

Thus, the idea goes, it was not the unique case characteristics that led to the enormous interest in Petito’s case, but rather who she was and what she looked like.

That idea is not wholly unfounded. In a 2016 study, I conducted a two-step statistical analysis to test whether Missing White Woman Syndrome is supported by underlying data. I examined every story about missing persons produced by four major online news outlets during one calendar year and compared the results with the overall population of missing persons as tabulated by the FBI.

I found disparities at two stages. First, the group of missing persons that received news coverage consisted of disproportionately fewer Blacks and men and boys when compared to the rates at which those groups actually go missing.

Second, when looking at that subset of missing persons who appeared in the news, the disparities grew even more pronounced when I examined the amount of coverage that each of those individuals received. White women and girls were the focus of almost half of all of the news articles, despite only accounting for approximately one-third of the missing persons in the news.

In other words, the coverage intensity was significantly higher for missing persons cases involving White women and girls. The two findings are consistent with Missing White Woman Syndrome and suggest that the race and gender disparities predicted by the idea are, in fact, a reality.

These findings were eye-opening to me. Although I hypothesized that race and gender disparities would exist, the extent of the overrepresentation of White women and girls surprised me.

Like much of my criminological research, the findings were yet another reminder of the challenges that underrepresented demographic groups still face in our country—and yet another lesson in the importance of feeling heard. I try to remember that lesson in all aspects of my life, including in my professional life as a social scientist and an attorney.

In my legal practice, I actively remind myself that every participant in our legal system brings her own perspective and experiences, and that the best litigation strategy always requires me to understand my counterparties and their motivations on a very human level. And in general, by staying vigilant and increasing awareness of the issues like Missing White Woman Syndrome, I hope to do my part to chip away at the types of disparities seen in my analysis.

How Do We Combat This Syndrome?

On a broader scale, what collective steps can we take as a culture to combat Missing White Woman Syndrome?

First, as referenced above, we can continue to raise awareness of these disparities and to engage in meaningful dialogue about their existence and implications. Additional empirical research in the area would fortify those discussions and strengthen the statistical basis for Missing White Woman Syndrome.

Second, increased awareness is especially paramount within news organizations, which are largely responsible for determining a story’s newsworthiness. Media companies must be deliberate in their editorial choices about missing persons stories to ensure that the victims presented are an accurate reflection of the overall demographics of such cases.

Achieving that goal is likely made easier when newsrooms themselves are diverse places filled with individuals with different backgrounds and experiences. A multitude of perspectives is more likely to lead to a variety of cases being highlighted and discussed in production meetings.

But the onus does not lie solely on news corporations. News consumers, too, can have an impact by lending their clicks and views to news stories and social media posts about missing persons from underrepresented groups. If news agencies’ metrics revealed increased interest in those stories, additional similar stories would follow.

Third, law enforcement also plays a role in determinations of newsworthiness. Public relations arms of police departments often serve as filtration points for crime news—departments may tip off reporters to specific cases or ask news agencies to run specific stories to help break open unsolved crimes. By striving to highlight a representative sample of missing persons cases, law enforcement could help ensure that more cases involving missing people of color come across the news desk.

To be clear, Petito’s case is a tragedy that no family should have to endure. Her story is worthy of the news coverage it has received, which may have helped with the police investigation into her disappearance. But other missing persons who do not look like Petito should also benefit from the same type of spotlight.

The families of those other missing persons are just as deserving of answers as Petito’s. After all, it is not just White women and girls who go missing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Zach Sommers is an attorney at Kirkland & Ellis and a criminologist who researches and explores the intersection of criminal law, race, and the news media and the corresponding effect on perceptions of crime. His law practice focuses on white collar matters, including governmental and internal investigations and cross-border transactional and compliance matters.

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