The movement to raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women has worked to continue to get more recognition of the cause and yet hundreds go miss never to be found. Since September 11, every American news channel has been gripped by the disappearance and murder of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old white Youtuber from New York who disappeared in Wyoming while on road trip with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie in a van which they chronicled using the hashtag #VanLife. Over the weekend, authorities found and identified her remains in a national forest in Wyoming, ruled the manner of death a homicide in preliminary findings. This lead to increasing the search for answers to the circumstances surrounding her death and her boyfriend’s whereabouts since he was reported missing Sept. 17 after declining to talk to authorities about her disappearance. It’s arguably one of the most unusual missing persons cases this year, given the extensive documentation they took from their shared YouTube channel, social media posts, and police bodycam footage.
But because of the extensive airtime dedicated to Petito, the high public interest online — even to the point of a Reddit user creating a page for the case — and the ever-growing efforts of law enforcement to search for her, it’s hard not to see this as yet another example of “missing white women syndrome.” First coined by news anchor Gwen Ifill, the term refers to the phenomenon by news media to routinely ignore missing BIPOC and WOC in favor of covering young, attractive, white middle-class women who disappear.
It’s rather ironic that in Wyoming, where Petito disappeared, 710 Indigenous people, more than half of them female, have been declared missing since 2011 in 22 out of the state’s 23 counties. Yet only 30 percent of Indigenous victims make the national news, compared to over half of white victims, Insider reported. Even when authorities were searching for Petito in Wyoming’s national park last week, they seemed to miss the Wind River Indian Reservation located less than two hours away, making it obvious who they consider worthy of resources, coverage, and rescue.
Unfortunately, this treatment and lack of interest in missing BIPOC cases aren’t without real-life consequences. When they receive less media attention, people of color are more at risk of being kidnapped or murdered because predators know no one will look for them. They are also less likely to be found, identified, or rescued because without extensive media attention, there’s not as much pressure on law enforcement to pursue a case, not as many resources allocated, and not as large rewards offered for tips and information. Unless stories center white women, the news media has little interest and fails BIPOC.
Despite missing white women syndrome, advocates in Wyoming have led successful campaigns to increase attention to missing and murdered Indigenous persons cases. In 2019, state governor Mark Gordon established the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force. In 2020, he signed legislation that would improve data collection of missing and murdered people, and would require increased law enforcement training specifically geared towards cases involving Indigenous people.
We still have a long way to go but one thing has always been clear—representation is more than just seeing ourselves on-screen in movies and TV shows. When done right, it can solve cases and save lives too.