Gabby Petito case rekindles debate about selective coverage, consumption of missing persons stories

WTOP's Ken Duffy speaks to Zach Sommers, a criminologist and sociologist, who studies missing persons cases.

News organizations and much of the public at large are transfixed on the story of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito, who went missing during a trip with her fiancée Brian Laundrie.

Authorities recently found human remains in Grand Teton, Wyoming that are believed to be those of the missing 22-year-old. The search is also on for Laundrie, who appears to have vanished without a trace.

While many are looking for answers to what happened, others are also wondering why this missing persons case is elevated and so intensely covered over others.

“It’s fair to say that it’s troubling,” said criminologist and sociologist Zach Sommers, who conducted a study into online news coverage of missing persons cases in terms of race and gender.

PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill is credited with first coining the phrase “missing white woman syndrome” when it comes to which stories are intensely covered and consumed by readers and news watchers.

Sommers’ study, titled “Missing White Woman Syndrome: An Empirical Analysis of Race and Gender Disparities in Online News Coverage of Missing Persons,” was published in 2016.

The study took a look at every missing persons case covered by several media groups in the year 2013. They include the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and CNN.com.

“[On the question of] who received any news coverage at all, we see whites, women and girls overrepresented,” said Sommers. “Within the folks that gets news coverage, [there’s] more coverage intensity and a greater number on average of articles about white missing people, women and girls.”

Sommers says it’s a reflection of trends seen more broadly in American society when it comes to culture, racism and even the makeup of newsrooms.

“We are ready, willing and able to accept the idea of ‘damsels in distress,’ [which is] a trope we see consistently,” said Sommers.

“With respect to race, we are just more readily willing to accept that there is a victim who is in need of saving or a case that we should care about when it’s a white person,” Sommers said.

Even though his analysis closely examined certain factors in coverage, Sommers stresses that it doesn’t lessen the seriousness of Petito’s case.

“None of this is to undersell the importance,” said Sommers. “It’s just that cases like this should get attention about all kinds of individuals not just those who look a certain way or fit into certain types of stereotypes that we’re used to seeing.”

Sommers even recommends solutions to buck the trend, which includes more diverse newsrooms and the general public changing their news consumption.

“Lending your attention and clicks to stories of missing persons of color or faces that we don’t necessarily see as commonly in this context can be a really tangible step we can take as individuals,” said Sommers.

Ken Duffy

Ken Duffy is a reporter and anchor at WTOP with more than 20 years of experience. He has reported from major events like the 2016 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, 2016 Election Night at Trump Headquarters in Midtown Manhattan and the 2007 Super Bowl in Miami.

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