How the Media Repeated ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ in Petito Case

“White victims tend to be portrayed as being in very safe environments, so it’s shocking that something like this could happen, whereas the Black and Latino victims are portrayed as being in unsafe environments, so basically normalizing victimization,” she said.

Ms. Slakoff added that there were a number of reasons people were interested in Ms. Petito’s case. The road trip was documented by Ms. Petito on social media, providing glimpses into her life. People wanted to feel that they were part of the story by helping to solve her disappearance and were connecting with others by tracking what was happening and trading information. But the amount of coverage threatened to turn the case into “entertainment,” she added.

“I don’t think we can discount the profit motive and the fact that, historically, these types of stories have gotten tons of engagement, viewers and clicks,” Ms. Slakoff said. “So I do think it could be argued that it’s kind of this vicious cycle.”

Stewart Coles, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Illinois’s communications department, said the public interest in Ms. Petito’s case had helped drive the media coverage, but did not account for all of it.

“We have to consider how sometimes choices about what stories are read and what we know are based on what gatekeepers within the media industry think that people want to know about,” he said. “And if those individuals think that people are more interested in a missing white woman, they are going to give us information on missing white women.”

On Twitter last Thursday, Hakeem Jefferson, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, was critical of a Washington Post article that described Ms. Petito as a “blue-eyed, blonde adventure-seeker.” He noted that those details were not pertinent to the story and “unnecessarily racializes the missing person from the jump.”

“Journalists should be more careful in their coverage of these cases, lest they perpetuate an already unequal visibility landscape for victims who don’t fit the mold,” Mr. Jefferson said in an interview.

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