The heart-wrenching story of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito’s disappearance and demise has captivated not only America, but the world. As billions around the globe have followed the unfolding story of the 22-year-old missing Long Island native, parents, siblings, and young adults have imagined facing such a devastating loss of their own daughter, sister, or friend. Gabby Petito and her fiance, Brian Laundrie have become the objects of fascination in the American media, leading to new conversations surrounding Missing White Woman Syndrome.
While the compassion evoked by the vast media coverage of the case has certainly created a powerful momentum and an outpouring of sympathy, for many families who are also missing loved ones, a raw sadness hangs in the air. Increasingly, an array of advocates are pointing out that—while, of course, a case such as Petito’s should be elevated, covered, and supported—countless missing persons of color disappear each year with little more than a murmur emerging from the media or the public at large.
The striking disparity is known as “missing white woman syndrome,” and while the response to Gabby Petito’s story may stand in the annals of time as a textbook example of the phenomena, conversation around the case has conversely provided space for examination of the complexities of race and equality issues within the media and society as a whole.
As Thomas Lauth—founder of Indianapolis-based and internationally operational Lauth Missing Persons—traces the pattern of missing white woman syndrome, while monitoring the evolution of the Petito case on the ground, we examine the many factors that propelled Petito’s case into the spotlight. Demand is growing for all missing persons to finally be given a voice in equal measure—with the hope that all of those left behind might experience a level playing field in terms of opportunity to seek the answers they long for.
Gabby Petito: A Singular Missing Persons Case
Gabby Petito was described in a Washington Post article as a “blue-eyed, blonde adventure-seeker”; a description that drew criticism from political science expert Hakeem Jefferson of Stanford University for its “unnecessary racializing.”
Having garnered a sizable social media following as she shared her adventures across several platforms, eyes were already turned towards the Gabby Petito when news of her disappearance emerged in the press and online. The young woman was on the road with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, 23, in a white Ford Transit Connect Van, making a cross-country trip. A “van life” blogger, Petito was documenting their journey when circumstances took a turn towards tragedy.
Speaking to USA Today, Lauth highlighted how the combination of factors in Petito’s case had made for headlines. Material entering the public sphere such as the couple’s own Instagram images and Youtube video footage, police body camera footage of a distressed Petito captured during a road-side stop in Utah on August 12th, and several witness sightings documented on TikTok that described Laundrie’s behavior as aggressive collectively created an intimate picture of a case that was ripe for public scrutiny.
On September 1st, Laundrie returned to the home he shared with Petito and his parents in North Port, Florida, without his fiancée. Growing increasingly concerned about their daughter and having received odd text messages from her phone, Petito’s own parents reported her missing on September 11th. On September 14th, the day before he would be named a person of interest in the case, Laundrie reportedly told his family he was going hiking in Carlton Reserve. He was not seen again, and his family maintain that they know nothing of his whereabouts.
On September 19th, Fox News described Petito as “America’s daughter,” transforming the tragic story of a missing woman into a symbol within the collective consciousness of countless Americans. On the same day, the FBI announced the discovery of a body in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, matching Petito’s description. Two days later, it was confirmed that Petito had been found, and that her case was now a homicide investigation. Meanwhile, police continued their search for Laundrie, who at time of writing remains at large.
The Darker Side of a Social Media Frenzy
Speaking to Indianapolis and Central Indiana news outlet WTHR, Lauth shared that in his decades of work, he can think of several cases of missing white women that have received exceptional national media attention—so-called missing white woman syndrome cases—alongside unusually substantial resource mobilization in the name of finding them. “Natalie Holloway, Elizabeth Smart, Lauren Spierer and now Gabby Petito,” said Lauth.
In the case of Gabby Petito, alongside around-the-clock media coverage, another type of phenomena was taking hold. A vast number of members of the public had put on their detective’s hats and taken to social media in order to form their own investigations, and share their own conclusions. TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram users scoured every capture they could find looking for clues, while use of the TikTok hashtag #gabbypetito crept towards and then exceeded 1 billion views. Experts speculated that the swell of amateur sleuthing may coincide with the rise of true crime podcasts and documentaries in recent years.
Speaking to the New York Times, criminal justice and media researcher Danielle Slakoff of California State University expressed a worrying concern that this kind of coverage threatens to turn active cases into “entertainment.” Insensitive or monetized posts can lead to the spread of misinformation, or worse yet, derail police investigations as those responsible for finding authentic clues are left scrambling as they try to sift through such swathes of information. Adding further to the sense of hysteria, television personality Duane Chapman, known as “Dog the Bounty Hunter” announced that he was joining the search for Brian Laundrie, although police have so far dismissed his tips.
The Roots of Missing White Woman Syndrome
In his conversation with WTHR, Lauth shared a sad observation: “The general public and the media have really been attracted to what’s called, “The Missing White Woman Syndrome,” better known as “Damsel in Distress Syndrome.”
Lauth describes the phenomena first coined by late American news anchor Gwen Ifill at a journalism conference in 2004. Since adopted by social scientists, the term “missing white woman syndrome” refers to a tendency towards heightened media coverage of young, attractive, white, upper-middle-class women who are missing when compared to women of color, women of lower social class, older women, men, boys, and LGBTQ missing persons.
On the phenomena, Ifill said, “If there’s a missing white woman, we are going to cover that, every day.” When asked if the response would have been the same had Petito been a woman of color, speaking once again to WTHR, Lauth said, “We wouldn’t be having this interview.”
Another aspect of missing white woman syndrome recently placed under the spotlight is the way in which missing person cases are framed. Research indicates that coverage of missing white women tends to emphasize their roles as mothers or daughters—and fundamentally as innocents—while coverage of missing women of color tends to place focus on the victim’s problems, implying a level of complicity in their disappearance.
Lauth laments the role that harmful stereotypes play in the profiling of victims of color. “They’re missing because they’re doing drugs somewhere or they’re missing because they’re in prostitution,” he said, giving examples of the bias seen within missing persons narratives. “Instead, a lot of these cases are people of color who are endangered.”
Pushing Back Against a Broken Pattern
To give context to the disproportion seen in the Petito case, we can turn to the statistics shared by nonprofit organization the Black and Missing Foundation. In 2020 alone, 543,018 people were reported missing in the United States. Of those, nearly 40% were people of color. Meanwhile, a report issued by the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center revealed that at least 710 Indigenous people vanished from the state of Wyoming—where Petito’s body was found—between 2011 and 2020, most of whom were women and girls.
Writing for USA Today, Suzette Hackney posed a powerful thought on behalf of those who are under-represented: “They aren’t all pretty and blonde. They don’t have a social media following. But their families deserve America’s sympathy and news coverage; their stories are no less important.”
Earlier this year, the FBI compiled a list of active missing persons cases of people under the age of 21, each in need of fresh leads. Scrolling through the many faces of those whose families still wait in hope of answers, the aware will likely find themselves reminded of the 2016 study that revealed missing persons of color to be “significantly underrepresented” in local and national news reporting when set against their tally among the FBI’s open missing persons case list.
Offering a silver lining to the dark cloud of tragedy that has fallen over the Petito case, a jump in awareness of such disparities is beginning to spread through the public sphere. While missing white woman syndrome may lead those motivated by profit to leverage its effect in the name of engagement and revenue, a push-back has emerged on social media. A number of TikTok users are using their platforms to increase awareness of minority missing persons cases that had previously remained largely unseen.
Lauth is poignantly aware that wealth and class can further compound the difference in resources that are mobilized between the spectra of missing persons cases. With this in mind, he encourages clients and followers alike of the Lauth Missing Persons’ investigative team to create GoFundMe pages, hold vigils, contact the media, and be available for interviews in order to drive awareness and interest in their loved ones’ cases.
Speaking on Tuesday 29th September at their first press conference since the discovery of Gabby Petito’s body, the Petito family stressed that while they are grateful for all of the attention that has fallen on Gabby’s case, they want every other family to get the same treatment. Having announced the founding of the Gabby Petito Foundation, the family outlined their desire to provide resources and guidance to others who were searching for a family member. “We’re hoping that through our tragedy, in the future, some good can come out of it,” Gabby’s father Joe explained.
The Petito Case Continues as Awareness Grows for the Previously Unseen
Authorities hope that Petito’s fiancé will soon come forwards and shed light on the events that led to Gabby Petito’s death. While considered a person of interest, Brian Laundrie has not been named as a suspect by the FBI. A warrant has, however, been issued for his arrest in relation to the “use of unauthorized devices.”
According to a federal indictment, Laundrie is alleged to have used a debit card and PIN number for charges exceeding $1,000 from an account that is not his own following Petito’s death, between the dates of August 30th and September 1st. Two separate rewards totaling $30,000 have been offered to anyone who provides a lead that reveals Laundrie’s whereabouts to law enforcement officials. Meanwhile, public discourse around the phenomena of missing white woman syndrome continues to surge, giving hope that a shift in the way missing persons cases are reported and received may be on the horizon.
For the many who are still holding on to hope following the disappearance of a loved one or family member, private investigations firm Lauth Missing Persons provide an array of free resources to help forge vital search momentum, as well as expert advice drawing on their decades of experience investigating missing persons cases in the field. While the bias of missing white woman syndrome may still remain prevalent, the self-driven nature of today’s information sharing means that the scales can tip just as quickly as an idea might spread. Lets hope that a tipping point has been reached, and this is only the beginning.