News media can’t shake ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’, critics say

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“White victims are often portrayed as being in very safe environments, so it’s shocking that something like this can happen, while the black and Latino victims are portrayed as being in insecure environments, essentially normalizing victimization,” she said.

Ms Slakoff added that there were a number of reasons why people were interested in Ms Petito’s case. The road trip was documented by Ms. Petito on social media and gave a glimpse into her life. People wanted to feel like they were part of the story by helping to solve her disappearance and connecting with others by following what happened and trading information. But the amount of coverage threatened to turn the case into “entertainment,” she added.

“I don’t think we can ignore the profit motive and the fact that these types of stories have historically generated a lot of engagement, viewers and clicks,” said Ms. Slakoff. “So I think you can say it’s kind of a vicious circle.”

Stewart Coles, a postdoctoral researcher in the communications department at the University of Illinois, said public interest in Ms. Petito’s case had spurred media attention, but not all.

“We have to think about how sometimes choices about which stories to read and what we know are based on what gatekeepers within the media industry think people want to know,” he said. “And if those individuals think people are more interested in a missing white woman, they’re going to give us information about missing white women.”

On Twitter last Thursday, Hakeem Jefferson, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, was critical of an article in the Washington Post who Ms. Petito described as a “blonde, blond, blue-eyed adventurer.” He noted that those details were irrelevant to the story and “unnecessarily racist the missing person from the jump.”

“Journalists should be more careful in their coverage of these cases to avoid perpetuating an already uneven visibility for victims who don’t fit the model,” said Mr. Jefferson in an interview.

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