The heightened media attention given to the tragic story of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old woman found dead by strangulation in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest, has prompted continued discussion of racial bias in the coverage of crime.
While Petito’s story continues to bear out, many within and outside the news industry are calling attention to the way that people of color rarely receive the same sympathetic coverage. Over the past decade, 710 Indigenous people, mostly young girls, have been reported missing in the state where Petito’s body was found. According to the National Crime Information Center, nearly 100,000 Black women disappeared in the United States last year. Even Petito’s family has called for more equitable attention to other missing people.
These inequities have brought the term “missing white woman syndrome,” coined by the late journalist Gwen Ifill, into the public consciousness. A search of the Television News Archive, found that CNN has mentioned Petito nearly 1,500 times over the past month, just 34 fewer times than President Biden’s name was dropped during the same time span.
To understand the root cause of the news’ fixation on missing white women, The Objective spoke with Dr. Danielle Slakoff, an assistant professor of criminal justice at California State University, Sacramento. As a feminist criminologist, her research has focused on, among other things, the inequities of crime news when it comes to Black and Latina women and trends within true crime podcasts.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You identify as a feminist criminologist. How did that framework of feminism inform the way that you think through your research?
A feminist criminologist—I’m literally wearing a necklace right now—is someone who centers women and girls in stories in research and teaching about the criminal justice system. Criminology, in general, tends to be a field where many of our theories about why people commit crimes are based on populations of men. Much of our research on incarceration is focused on men’s incarceration. Feminist criminologists come to it from a lens of centering women and their stories. Most of my work has focused specifically on women and I’m super proud of that fact.
One of the things that I’ve really focused on in my research is the missing white woman syndrome. [My paper] talks about how there is this over-representation of missing white women and girls, in the initial coverage as well as repeated coverage. Repeated coverage means that more people are going to see those stories, and potentially make connections to the fact that they’ve seen it before. For example, the Gabby Petito case has been a huge media firestorm and you see that there is so much repeated coverage. Another way of saying this is that the missing Black women in this study had more one-off articles about them. They were mentioned, they were in the news, but it was only one time. So if somebody is not an avid media consumer, they are less likely to see it.
Some of my other research looks specifically at the actual content of these stories. My colleague Pauline Brennan and I looked at front-page newspaper stories involving white, Black, and Latino women and girl victims and we looked for themes in those stories. In the stories about Latina and Black women and girls, we commonly saw themes around them being in an unsafe environment, essentially telling the audience that these Latina and Black women and girl victims were in environments that were unsafe. It’s essentially normalizing their victimization. It’s basically saying that this is expected in these environments and therefore, it’s less shocking that this happened.
On the flip side, in the stories about white women and girl victims, we were seeing mentions of the fact that they were in safe environments, that nothing like this ever happened in this area. So we argue that this really fosters sympathy for the white women and girls. “How could they protect themselves if they were already in the safe area? It’s so unexpected.”
So I just think it’s an interesting theme or narrative that came out in our study. It’s not just that there’s a difference in media coverage by the numbers, but also that there are fundamentally different ways that these women and girls are being portrayed across racial lines.
Where do you see the root of that repeat coverage? Is it more because audiences have an appetite for this, or is it because news organizations have an appetite for it?
That’s the real chicken or egg question. I think it goes both ways. I think that the media sees that the public is deeply invested in these stories: They get lots of clicks, lots of engagement, lots of shares, lots of comments. So on some level, there’s a belief that this is what the public wants to hear about, but I know you know that there is a theory about the fact that the media sets the news agenda for the public.
It’s really hard to tease out which comes first, but underlying this is the fact that the media wants clicks and engagement for advertising revenue. And the fact that these stories consistently do well means that it’s probably going to continue. I do research on true crime as well and we’re seeing that often the stories that are covered in true crime media tend to be stories about white women being harmed by white men, so we’re already starting to see a trend—although that research is quite a bit newer and not as fleshed out yet.
How can news organizations address this inequitable trend within their own newsrooms?
It’s a really good question. There are lots of potential answers. We still see a lack of diversity in newsrooms and that could potentially be playing a role. We still see a lack of diversity among police officers and we know that police officers are a major catalyst of crime news stories.
I would love to see more and more journalists and editors, people who are making the calls on what stories are getting covered, to commit to covering stories about other missing people, even if they are not the stories that historically get the most clicks. We are starting to see that people are really taking the media to task for some of these disparities in coverage. And maybe I’m naive, but I am hopeful that we might see some changes. The question is whether it’s going to be a short-term or long-term change. I think that journalists can absolutely push for these stories to get more attention, but I’m also not naive to the fact that even if individual journalists are pushing for that, that doesn’t mean that their higher-ups are going to go for it.
Journalists can also discuss intimate partner violence—abuse that occurs generally between current or former intimate partners—as long-standing, interlocking types of abuse. There is this myth of the stranger in the bushes jumping out to harm people. Unfortunately, research shows that women are most likely to be harmed by people that they know. With cases like [Petito’s], there’s going to be a lot of focus on what happened when she was killed. But in reality, the strongest warning sign for intimate partner homicide is prior domestic violence. Research has shown that intimate partner homicide is often portrayed as an explosion or a one-off event. In reality, we know that it’s often long-standing violence that has been occurring. And so I think something the media can absolutely do better is mentioning the history of intimate partner violence and center emotional abuse or financial abuse because they do not get a lot of attention.
Are there specific resources that you feel would be beneficial for reporters to include within their reporting?
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a really good resource. No matter where you call from in the U.S., they will put you in contact with your local domestic violence center. So that’s the number that, in general, I suggest to people that have a broad audience because then they can be routed to who they need to speak to.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at thehotline.org or 1-800-799-7233.