‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ highlights racial disparities in media’s coverage of missing people, expert says

Local News

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The national attention Gabby Petito‘s death has garnered makes some question why missing people of color do not receive the same coverage and expert says it has to do with “Missing White Woman Syndrome.”

The syndrome refers to the disproportionate media coverage of missing white women or girls who are oftentimes young, have the American standard of beauty, and are upper-middle-class compared to minorities who disappear.

Petito’s name has been shared millions of times across news and social media platforms. It has also been in the news cycle consistently for nearly three weeks.

Fidencio Minjares from Tampa says his daughter, Veronica Reyes-Diaz’s name was forgotten days after her disappearance.

Veronica Reyes-Diaz disappeared on Jan. 18, 2020. Her father and family have been searching for her since.

“She (Gabby) disappeared three weeks ago and had the whole nation, FBI, everybody involved. Us? nothing,” Minjares said. “She was about the same age as Gabby, she was 24, so why is her life more important than my daughters? Why? Because my daughter’s Hispanic? Because she’s brown? That shouldn’t matter.”

A mother of three, Reyes-Diaz has been missing since January 2020. Hillsborough County deputies say her car was still home with her keys, purse, and wallet inside at the time she disappeared.

“I believe from the get-go they dropped the ball,” Minjares said.

He says investigators canceled the search for his daughter two days after she disappeared.

“They said she was grown and could legally leave and do as she pleases,” he said.

So for the past year, he has taken matters into his own hands.

“Share her story, get her story out there, I did everything I could, we passed flyers,” he said.

“You did all of that and then you see what’s going on with Gabby Petito, how many people are helping with the investigation, how many stations are covering the case. How does that make you feel?” 8 On Your Side’s Deanne King asked.

“Like my daughter don’t matter,” he said.

Minjares told News Channel 8 he believes race played a role in why his daughter didn’t get “Gabby Petito” coverage.

Criminologist Zach Sommers says the Petito case relates directly to “Missing White Woman Syndrome.”

“I think the Petito case is interesting because in some ways it fits ‘Missing White Women Syndrome’ to a tee,” Sommers said. “Gabby was a young, white woman, she fits a lot of standard definitions of beauty, and was wealthy enough to at least to take a multi-month road trip across the country.”

Sommers examined media coverage and FBI missing persons data for two years and then published his study titled Missing White Woman Syndrome: An Empirical Analysis of Race and Gender Disparities in Online News Coverage of Missing Persons.

“White women and white girls are dramatically overrepresented,” Sommers said. “They make up about half of all news stories written about missing persons. It found that African-Americans who go missing receive less coverage or less likely to appear in the news at all.”

Per Sommers research, there are dramatic disparities in how media organizations cover missing persons cases. His research also showed how infrequent missing people of color are covered by the media.

“I think there’s a difference between someone that gets one story written by them compared to Gabby Petito that’s had thousands of news stories written about her,” Sommers said.

He’s made it clear, people researching and talking about “Missing White Woman Syndrome” aren’t saying the Petito case isn’t worthy of news coverage.

“No one is saying that Gabby’s case isn’t worthy of coverage,” he said. “What people are saying who study ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ or commenting on this is that this should be something we need to expand the pot here. It shouldn’t be Gabby or someone else gets coverage. It should be Gabby and the 14-year-old young Black man who goes missing.”

If that would have happened, Minjares feels like his daughter may have been able to get justice too.

“My daughter matters too, she had three kids. ‘Til this day they still ask, ‘Where’s mom at? I miss mom.’ As a grandparent, what am I supposed to tell them” Minjares said. “They think grandpa’s a hero and this time I’m not.”

Sommers believes it will take more diverse newsrooms and news consumers sharing more stories about missing people of color in order to combat “Missing White Woman Syndrome.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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