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The news this week has been closely following the disappearance and homicide case of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old who went missing while traveling the country with her fiance visiting national parks. Last night, an autopsy confirmed that a body found that matched her description was Petito, and ruled her death a homicide (CNN). Gabby Petito is a prominent influencer, and her story was accelerated by her notable absence online, sparking dozens of amateur detectives to solve her case (NYTimes). The scale of reporting on her story emphasizes how, in contrast, missing and marginalized people don’t receive the same level of attention in the press as white women.

We’ve written about the disparities of how missing people are reported in the media. Last fall, we ran an excerpt of “When a Black Woman Disappear,” Who Is Trying to Find Her?” initially published on ZORA. In that piece, Dixon emphasizes that “African Americans are overrepresented in the number of missing persons cases compared to the population as a whole” (ZORA). We also interviewed athlete and activist Lauren Schad on her work to amplify the voices of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people (ARD). There, we emphasized how homicide is the third leading cause of death among Native girls and women aged 10 to 24, and the fifth leading cause of death for Native women aged 25 to 34 (Department of Justice). 

Generally, white women are treated more favorably and given more air time than women of color. But these metrics are exacerbated when missing marginalized people identify as LGBTQ2S+. Trans people in particular are significantly less likely to receive media support. Kylar Broadus, executive director of the Trans People of Color Coalition, emphasizes that “A white trans* person is far more likely to get press than a trans* person of color” (Missing NY). A comprehensive article in Xtra Magazine highlights the challenges of solving the murders of LGBTQ2S+ and the organizations dedicated to finding justice.

Also of note: the white privilege that has protected Brian Laundrie, Petito’s fiance, who is now a suspect in her disappearance. As with missing people of color, white men are less likely to be suspected of a crime (American Progress). Read more on Black Enterprise

Nearly a year later, these stories and statistics still ring true. And some believe that the pandemic only exacerbated the violence that missing Black and Indigenous women experience. Sharron Johnson, co-organizer and founder of an MMIW remembrance walk in Ontario, noted that they hope the re-opening of local businesses will help reduce future incidents (Chronicle Journal). There’s particular resonance with the fact that Gabby went missing around Wyoming. In the past decade, over 700 Indigenous people, mostly girls, were reported missing over the past decade in the same state (Insider). A state report indicates that  Indigenous people have made up 21% of homicides in Wyoming, even though they are only 3% of the population (NPR). And many more are lost in rural communities, like Florence Okpealuk, who disappeared in Nome, AL  last year, and Daniel Robinson, who disappeared in the desert outside Buckeye, AZ, three months ago. 

Some people feel that the discourse around elevating marginalized voices detracts from the Petito case. But the lack of awareness is closely intertwined. Some believe law enforcement failed to protect Petito. And, we know they often fail to protect other women and people of color from harm. We can both advocate for justice for Gabby Petito and amplify the stories of missing people that don’t receive the same amount of media coverage. More robust, inclusive coverage of missing people will only help contextualize the circumstances before disappearances, emphasize the scope of the issue, and encourage a more comprehensive response that centers on the victims. And in its absence, we can do our best to amplify the stories of those missing in our communities. 

Key Takeaways

  • The case of Gabby Petito emphasizes the need for comprehensive safety measures that centers everyone, particularly those from the most marginalized identities.
  • The media disproportionately covers stories of missing white cisgender women.
  • We can both mourn Gabby Petito’s disappearance and murder and advocate for those missing that don’t receive the same level of attention.

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