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Missing women and the question of colour


AT THE end of August, a 22-year-old American white woman named Gabby Petito went missing while on a cross-country trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. Her whereabouts became a cause for concern on September 1 when Laundrie arrived home in Florida alone and refused to talk about Petito. About a week later, her mother filed a missing persons report and the story went viral. A few weeks later, Petito’s body was found in a forest in Wyoming. After an autopsy her death was declared a homicide. 

Petito’s story has caused the term ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ to re-emerge in news media headlines. The term refers to the idea that missing young white females receive a disproportionate amount of media coverage compared with their non-white counterparts. The late American news anchor, Gwen Ifill, is credited with coining the phrase in 2004 saying, ‘I call it the missing white woman search syndrome. If there is a missing white woman, you’re going to cover that every day.’

The loudest talking head in relation to the Petito case is MSNBC’s Joy Reid. On her nationally syndicated show, The Reid Out, she said: ‘The way this story captivated the nation has many wondering, why not the same media attention when people of colour go missing?’ She added that it illustrates the media and public fascination with white women, while ignoring the cases involving missing people of colour. She claimed that missing black women do not get news coverage because they do not look like the offspring of newsroom executives.

Miya Marcano, a female person of colour who lived and worked in Orlando, Florida, was reported missing on September 24 by her family after she missed a flight home that day. Marcano’s story became a national case with more than 60 detectives working on it, as well as 176 personnel from multiple counties assisting with dogs, dive teams and helicopters. On October 2, Marcano’s body was found in a wooded area. I challenge you to find any reporting on the story by Joy Reid during the week of that search.

There are a couple of reasons why the mainstream media gives less attention to missing female POCs. The first, which is not comfortable to report yet nonetheless true, is that it’s simply not good for ratings. A story about a missing young white woman gets more views and clicks than one about a missing black or brown woman. The second reason is that the perpetrator in a missing female POC story is almost always a male POC, and the mainstream media does all it can to avoid reporting negatively about POCs in general. Simply put, reporting missing female POC stories is bad for business and goes against their narrative, so the MSM avoids it altogether. 

Reid’s personal Twitter account has 2million followers. The Reid Out  averages a million viewers a day, while the Twitter handle for the show has 584,000 followers. Reid’s employer, MSNBC, has 4.3million followers on Twitter. Thus Reid has the attention of millions of people. If she genuinely cared about finding these missing women of colour, she would Tweet and broadcast their stories to her followers and viewers. Complaining about the media’s lack of reporting on missing women of colour, while she herself is a leading figure in the media, is the height of hypocrisy.      

The late Norm Macdonald said that the perfect joke is when the set-up and the punchline are almost identical. In honour of the great Canadian comedian I have attempted my own ‘perfect joke’: Joy Reid could get these missing female POCs stories heard by the masses if she only had a large enough platform . . . as big as, say, Joy Reid’s.

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Thomas Lane
Thomas Lane
Thomas Lane is a writer who lives and works in New York City.

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