As the mystery of Gabby Petito’s whereabouts unfolded, news media clamored to cover the story. Partially chasing the clicks of the social media users who went viral trying to determine her whereabouts when Petito was announced missing, national and local news prioritized and again when tragically, her remains were discovered.

Gwen Ifill is often credited for coining the term “Missing White Woman Syndrome” during her remarks at the Unity: Journalists of Color journalism conference in 2004. Sociologist Sheri Parks, another African American woman, also spoke about the media practice on CNN in 2006.

The term missing white woman syndrome refers to “the observed disproportionate media coverage, especially in television, of missing-person cases involving young, white, upper-middle-class women or girls compared to the relative lack of attention towards missing women who are not white, women of lower social classes, and missing men or boys.”

Pushing the industry to do better

The Maynard Institute was contacted to weigh in how the news media perpetuates an imbalance of coverage in coverage listed below. Co-executive director Martin Reynolds was tapped to contribute to discussions about the media’s handling of the news story.

In one of the panel interviews, Martin was joined by Dr. Ava Thompson Greenwell, Documentary Filmmaker & Research of the Black Women Television News Managers, who detailed exactly why the mission of the Maynard Institute to diversify newsrooms is so relevant. Dr. Greenwell said “I did a study of forty Black women news managers in television. They intervene on that pattern and really try to make sure that Black women are given the same dignity as other women.”

New York Times articles

How the Case of Gabrielle Petito Galvanized the Internet

News Media Can’t Shake ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome,’ Critics Say

“What I’m most concerned about is the amount of coverage, and if you look at newsrooms, the coverage decisions are made in places that continue to be disproportionately white,” said Mr. Reynolds, whose organization works with journalists of color.

AFP Yahoo News article

Gabby Petito’s disappearance captivated the world. Why?

“The people who are in the roles of making decisions about what could be news lack diversity,” added Martin Reynolds of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, in addressing the disparity.

CBS New York segment

National Media Coverage Of Gabby Petito’s Disappearance Raises Questions About Attention For Missing People Of Color

“This isn’t to say that these journalists are bad folks or that this isn’t a worthy story … What I think is really essential is the understanding of the choices that we make as journalists are an articulation of value.” Reynolds said.

The Special Report with Areva Martin talk show

The Special Report with Areva Martin: Missing White Women Syndrome

Additional Panelists included:

  • Dr. Michelle N Jeanis, Professor of University of Louisiana & Missing Persons Crime & Media Researcher
  • Dr. Ava Thompson Greenwell, Documentary Filmmaker & Research of the Black Women Television News Managers

For additional media inquiries, please reach out to us at info@mije.org.