OPINION: News outlets unjustly contributed to ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’

Missing people of color in Tampa are covered disproportionately less in news media when compared to that of missing white women. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/WIKIMEDIA/U.S. Department of State

The lack of news coverage on missing people of color (POC) in Tampa has been illuminated by the attention on Gabby Petito’s disappearance. This affliction in media is known as the “Missing White Woman Syndrome” and must be remedied.

There’s a disparity in news coverage between missing POC and young, attractive white women. Tampa news is no exception, leaving families of missing women of color distraught and frustrated. Tampa news stations should acknowledge this and work toward eliminating this gap in coverage.

Gwen Ifill coined the term Missing White Woman Syndrome in a 2004 journalism conference, and it is a theory backed by empirical studies. The most notable being a 2016 empirical study by the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

This study pulled from five major U.S. news sources like CNN and the Chicago Tribune. Nearly 50% of the missing person cases covered that year were white women, according to the study. Women of color combined made up 25% of news coverage, half of what white women garnered.

This coverage is drastically skewed when you consider that same year, 41% of missing persons cases filed were POC, according to the FBI’s Missing Person Statistics.

Tampa news outlets could fight this disparity by giving equal exposure and effort to cases for all POC. As of now, Tampa isn’t doing so, as signified by the outrage in the families of victims of color.

Tampa Bay Times reported 32 missing person cases since 2018, according to their website’s archive. Of these stories, 25% are POC, and the other 75% are white women.

Of the last 32 missing person cases reported by ABC Tampa Bay News, 19% are POC, leaving the other 81% to white people, according to their website archive.

One rightfully enraged family is Veronica Reyes-Diaz’s, a mother of three that disappeared in January 2020. The father of Reyes-Diaz, Fidencio Minjares, told News Channel 8 that her case was dropped by investigators just a couple days after her disappearance was reported.

“She was about the same age as Gabby, she was 24, so why is her life more important than my daughters? … Because my daughter’s Hispanic? Because she’s brown? That shouldn’t matter,” Minjares said.

The case of Petito’s disappearance is the most recent example of the Missing White Woman Syndrome, with her case having gained 1.7 billion views on TikTok as of Oct. 24.

This isn’t to say Petito deserves less coverage, but rather that POC deserve more. Tampa news, and national news, is failing them as a whole.

A common misconception is that Petito was a popular YouTube influencer prior to her disappearance, which is why there’s so much coverage on her case. However, her YouTube channel Nomadic Statik had only 149 subscribers and 507 views prior to her reported disappearance on Sept. 11, according to Social Blade.

POC deserve justice, something achieved through equal news and media coverage. Tampa news outlets can do better by closing the coverage gap between the white women and POC.