National spotlight on Gabby Petito case highlights disparities in coverage of missing people

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INDIANAPOLIS — As the nation watched investigators and social media detectives feverishly search for Gabby Petito, others have looked on in frustration wondering why the same attention is not given to other missing people — specifically those of color.

“It’s not really just white women, it’s particular white women with a particular look,” said Liza Black, IU assistant professor of History and Native American and Indigenous Studies. Black is a member of the Cherokee Nation and is also writing a book about murdered and missing Indigenous women.

Black said she has been frustrated and angry this week, watching the coverage of the Gabby Petito case that once again brought a nation flocking to cover a missing white woman.

As Gabby’s case took hold of social media feeds, critics pointed to the fact that statistics show Indigenous women go missing at 10 times the national average, and the vast majority of disappearances and murders are never solved.

“It’s the particular look of the women. It’s also heterosexual women that the media tends to become fascinated with, and a woman who is sort of conventionally attractive and is the size society still expects women to be,” Black said.

Black said no one is saying Gabby’s family doesn’t deserve this attention. But she is saying families of other missing people deserve more attention than they’re given.

“They do not want to say Petitos’ family doesn’t deserve justice,” Black clarified. “They’re asking for sort of a piece of that limelight.”

According to Kathy Guider, a former FBI agent and vice president of Operations at Veracity IIR, the limelight and media attention often goes a long way toward solving these cases.

“Somebody may not have seen the news today, but tomorrow they see the news and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I wanted to call and tell somebody,’ so that continual presence on the media definitely does help,” Guider said.

Guider added Petito’s case is definitely getting extra attention because Petito and her fiancé Brian Laundrie already had a social media following.

“They were on Instagram, TikTok, they had a YouTube channel,” she said. “They had already put themselves out there into that world displaying their movements from national park to national park.”

On top of that, Guider said the Petito case had several twists and turns that kept the national audience interested.

“It’s multifaceted, it’s not just one thing, one location,” Guider said. “It’s multiple locations, multiple sightings, multiple different angles and avenues to look at.”

But Black said there are stories about missing people of color with equal amounts of intrigue that are not getting nearly the same coverage.

“These girls deserve justice and these girls’ stories are actually just as interesting,” Black said. “I think that’s also one of the draws with Gabby’s is all the levels of intrigue there. These people could have that with these missing Indigenous girls and women.”

Black said the media needs to make a change and provide equal coverage to missing persons cases, not just the ones that are getting the most clicks by online viewers.

“I think that is going to be a tough argument to make in a newsroom to cover something with only 30 likes on Twitter and is absolutely nowhere near trending,” Black said.

Black said this is a tightrope many family and friends of missing people walk: wanting the Petito family to find justice but wondering where their own justice is.

“I’m sure every time they see yet another Brian Laundrie post they have to be resentful of that and say, ‘Where’s the help for my child?'”

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