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Missing White Woman: Race bias in media coverage of missing persons

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Jim Schmidt, stepfather of Gabby Petito, the 22 year-old woman whose death on a cross-country trip has sparked a manhunt for her boyfriend Brian Laundrie, speaks alongside Joseph Petito, father, immediate left; Tara Petito, stepmother, second from right; and Nichole Schmidt, mother, right, during a heavily covered Sept. 28 news conference in Bohemia, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

If you haven’t heard the latest news about the search for Gabby Petito, and the boyfriend with whom she was last seen, that information is not hard to come by. Ms. Petito and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, embarked on a cross country trip in June. Ms. Petito was in touch with her parents throughout the summer until the end of August, when her communication stopped. Her parents reported her missing on September 11th. Brian Laundrie returned to his parents’ home three days later, without Ms. Petito, and refused to speak with authorities. Ms. Petito’s remains were found in Wyoming on September 19th. Brian Laundrie left his parents’ home on September 14, and his whereabouts remain unknown. The FBI has issued a federal arrest warrant for him.

More than a half a million people were reported missing in 2020. By the end of that year, about 89,000 missing person cases were active, and nearly 45% of those cases were people of color. But naming any of those victims based on news accounts of their fates is nearly impossible. Baltimoreans may remember the case of Phylicia Barnes, a young African American woman from North Carolina who was killed while visiting MD, and a missing Asian American woman, Lauren Cho, has attracted some media attention, but Gabby Petito, Natalee Holloway, Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson and others who have become national household names are White, and the vast majority of women and girls of color who are missing remain far outside the media spotlight.

In 2004, the late PBS News Anchor Gwen Ifill coined the term, “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” referring to the fact that White women who are reported missing are much more likely to have their stories covered. Today on Midday, we’ll examine this phenomenon, and explore why the coverage of missing people of color is so disproportionate.

We begin with two scholars who study this issue. Dr. Danielle Slakoff is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Sacramento State University whose research focuses on media and crime. Dr. Slakoff joins us on Zoom from Sacramento…

And Zach Sommers is an attorney with the firm of Kirkland and Ellis. He’s also a criminologist who has studied the nexus of criminal law, race and the news media. He joins us on Zoom from Chicago.

Later in the hour, we're joined by Natalie Wilson, who, along with her sister-in-law, Derrica Wilson, is a co-founder of The Black and Missing Foundation, a DC-based organization that works to bring media attention to cases involving missing persons of color. Natalie Wilson also joins us on Zoom, from Washington DC.

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Dr. Danielle Slakoff, assoc. prof. criminal law, Cal. State/Sacramento; Zach Sommers, attorney with Kirkland & Ellis, LLP; and Natalie Wilson, Black and Missing Foundation.

Host, Midday (M-F 12:00-1:00)
Malarie is Midday's Supervisory Producer.
Rob is Midday's senior producer.