On Wednesday, just days following the tragic discovery of missing woman Gabby Petito’s body and the autopsy ruling her death a homicide, CNN’s New Day aired a segment in shocking bad taste accusing society of suffering from “missing white woman syndrome.” The guest on the show, journalist Mara Schiavocampo, began by claiming, “This isn’t saying Gabby Petito is not important,” and then went on to complain about the way the media has relentlessly covered her story.
“When everybody knows their face, when everyone knows the world is looking for them, it makes a real difference,” she said. This, of course, is a good thing, and assisted in the search for Petito. However, Schiavocampo interpreted the national media attention as a flaw in the nation’s "value system":
And this is what we’re seeing with the value system, society's larger value system of white women being valued heavily and women of color not being valued as much comes through the media because a lot of the decisions about what’s being covered is made largely by newsrooms led by white men. And that’s the core of the problem here, is that this reflects the value system.
Yes, that’s right. Covering the Petito tragedy is just another symptom of systemic racism, and this type of media coverage is directly endangering women of color, according to Schiavocampo: “This makes them less safe. Perpetrators, predators know that if you want to get away with murder, you seek the victim that no one is going to look for. So this has very real implications for women who are walking around today.”
After playing a clip from 2004 in which the late journalist Gwen Ifill referred to this phenomenon as “missing white woman syndrome,” co-host Brianna Keilar asked Schiavocampo, “what’s changed?”
“Nothing has changed since then,” responded Schiavocampo. “I've covered tons of crime and I can spot a ‘perfect victim’ from a mile away. I could have told you this Gabby Petito story was going to blow up because we all know who gets attention. We all know who gets coverage. That has to change.”
Curiously, Schiavocampo did not have a problem with the statistical underrepresentation of men in missing persons cases: in 2020, 35,000 more men than women over 21 went missing. It doesn’t quite fit with her narrative that the problem is racism.
As the nation grieves alongside the Petito family and anxiously awaits new developments in the story, it is stunning to see such bitterness from pundits who can only think about fairness in the wake of a young woman’s murder.
CNN was not alone in using the Petito tragedy to push charges of racism. On ABC's Good Morning America, co-host T.J. Holmes similarly ranted about “the media's seeming infatuation with missing white women.”
The full transcript of the segment is below. Click expand to read:
JOHN BERMAN: The national focus on the story of Gabby Petito, whose remains were identified yesterday in Wyoming, has generated a parallel conversation about how much attention is given to white women who go missing versus the amount of attention and resources given to cases involving women of color. According to the FBI, there were nearly 55,000 adults who went missing last year where the person was believed to be in danger or had gone missing involuntarily, kidnapping. More than 15,000 were black, while more than 34,000 were white, which includes Latinos, as the FBI doesn’t have a separate category for them. So, are these numbers reflected in all the coverage or national attention? Joining us now: journalist and host of the podcast Run Tell This, Mara Schiavocampo. Mara, thanks so much for being here, great to see you.
MARA SCHIAVOCAMPO: Thanks for having me.
BERMAN: Look, the Gabby Petito story is interesting and raises all kinds of questions. There are things that need to be investigated and discovered there. This isn't saying that that story is not important. But…
SCHIAVOCAMPO: Well, thank you for starting that way because that’s important to note. This isn't saying that Gabby Petito is not important. What it is saying is that there is an overrepresentation in media when white women go missing and an underrepresentation in media when black, brown and indigenous people go missing. So for example, Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway, Chandra Levy, these are all household names. We can all think of their faces when we say their names, but I'm willing to bet no one watching or listening can name one single black or brown woman who went missing who became a household name. And there are comparable examples of young, beautiful, middleclass women where every other factor is aligned with, say, Gabby Petito, but the only differentiator is race. So for example, Nikki Fitts, 32-year-old mother in California went missing in 2016. How many people know her name? Her 2-year-old daughter went missing with her. That child is still missing to this day. So we are talking about representation.
BRIANNA KEILAR: This isn't just – I mean, you might look at media coverage, or a layperson might look at media coverage and say, okay, those are the stories that get blown up and that get covered. But what is the harm? What is the harm of it?
SCHIAVOCAMPO: Yeah. So unlike with other stories that maybe are over or underrepresented, this actually has real-life implications for women of color. Why? This makes them less safe, because perpetrators – predators know that if you want to get away with murder, you seek the victim that no one is going to look for. So this has very real implications for women who are walking around today. Also, when there is all of this media attention, that puts pressure on law enforcement, that directs resources to these searches. It increases reward money. So these women are much more likely to be found because of the media attention.
BERMAN: That’s really interesting you say that. Leyla Santiago, who’s down in Florida covering this for us said that as far as she can tell the FBI and law enforcement presence yesterday was greater than she had seen in the days before.
SCHIAVOCAMPO: Media is very, very powerful. When the light is shone on these women, and no one is saying they don't deserve it, but other women deserve it as well, when everybody knows their face, when everyone knows that the world is looking for them, it makes a real difference.
And this is what we’re seeing when the value system, society's larger value system of white women being valued heavily and women of color not being valued as much comes through the media because a lot of the decisions about what’s being covered is made largely by newsrooms led by white men. And that’s the core of the problem here, is that this reflects the value system.
KEILAR: I think also separately from women of the George Floyd case and all of the resources that got mobilized outside of that department, they wanted to make sure that they had their best shot at a top notch prosecution. But, look, this is -- this is something that we have seen before, right. This is actually a term that was the late great Gwen Ifill who we miss very dearly, came up with. She talked about this at a journalists of color conference back in 2004. So let's listen to that.
(Begin recorded segment)
SUZANNE MALVEAUX: I think at the time when, ‘94 in Rwanda, we were looking at, you know, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding and Wayne Bobbitt, everybody knows what happened to Bobbitt, you know.
GWEN IFILL: I call it the missing white woman syndrome. If there’s a missing white woman, we're going to cover that, every day.
MALVEAUX: It's true.
(End recorded segment)
KEILAR: What's changed?
SCHIAVOCAMPO: Yeah, nothing has changed since then. And, you know, we miss Gwen Ifill, because she was a truth teller. She told the truth. I've covered tons of crime and I can spot a ‘perfect victim’ from a mile away. I could have told you this Gabby Petito story was going to blow up because we all know who gets attention. We all know who gets coverage. That has to change. Imagine the men, women and children in the community where Gabby Petito went missing who know that for the last ten years 700 indigenous people have gone missing and nobody has said a word and one missing white woman turns up in their backyard, and the world pays attention. That is insulting.
KEILAR: Can I ask you a question though, just about part of the story if it’s something that benefits all women, which is this 911 call, we know the call was about Brian Laundrie allegedly hitting her, and you look at the Moab police tape, right. And it looks like she's going to be the one who gets in trouble. I wonder what this says for all women, though, about -- and for policing when it comes to how they should be approaching these domestic violence incidents and how perhaps they should be asking more questions.
SCHIAVOCAMPO: It is very important to have these conversations. And this is a sisterhood, right, the sisters support each other. But what a lot of folks are pointing out is that the rules don't apply equally. And that's what we all want. We want all women to be protected. We want all women to be searched for when they disappear.
KEILAR: We have to think about this as we cover this. Mara Schiavocampo, always lovely to have you. Thank you.
SCHIAVOCAMPO: Thank you. Good to see you guys.