Over the last couple of days every time I turn on the news, I catch a segment about the tragic disappearance and now death of Gabby Petito. The 22-year old’s name has infiltrated national headlines after she mysteriously disappeared several weeks ago. Petito had been traveling cross-country with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, who is said to be the last person to have seen her alive.
Prior to her disappearance, Petito and Laundrie had an argument while visiting Moab, Utah. At some point it became physical and brash enough for the police to be called. The police report stated that "both the male and female reported they are in love and engaged to be married and desperately didn't wish to see anyone charged with a crime."
Like the rest of the world, I watched the video of her crying on the side of the road while talking to law enforcement that day. I heard the 911 call about the fight Petito and Laundrie had while on their cross country road trip. And then, I read the most news about the discovery of her body.
The story is tragic and the pain her family and friends must be feeling is something I would not wish on anyone. On day three of the coverage of her case however, I asked a friend, “this is so sad but is there something about this case I’m missing?” Rarely does the case of a missing person become international news.
On August 9, 2018, my own family experienced the gut-wrenching fog of pain when a family friend, Brenda Hopkins went missing. Three years later, the police have no leads but continue to search for information on her disappearance. She was a 68-year-old Black woman living in Maryland.
Brenda’s case received one, maybe two, local TV news stories and a few short write ups in local papers, but no national coverage. Does one story have more value than another? Does one life have more value?
Thinking about Brenda and now the coverage of the Petito case has forced me to ask some questions. Is the reason Petito’s story is getting so much coverage because incidents of missing persons don’t actually happen as often as one may think, so when they do, we need to shine a giant flood light on it? The answer is no because in the U.S. alone by the end of 2020, there were 89,637 active missing persons records in the FBI’s 2020 National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Missing Person and Unidentified Person database.
Is the coverage so high because she was missing for almost a month and most people are found sooner? Maybe, but studies like those culled by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, prove that an estimated 613,000 people reported missing in the U.S. last year, and about 60% were people of color, mainly Black and Indigenous women, who are also more likely to stay missing longer than their white counterparts.
So again, I asked my friend, what is it about this case? She looked at me and said, ‘You know why. It’s because Gabby Petito was a young, white woman.’
My friend was right, and I knew it all along. The coverage that Black, Indigenious, and other people of color receive in the media pales in comparison to what is provided to missing white people.
In 2017, the hashtags #DCmissingGirls and #BringOurGirlsHome (originally used as a campaign to free more than 200 girls and teens abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria) began trending on social media. In an effort to find dozens of missing Black and brown girls, the DC police department started to post pictures of missing Black and brown girls on Twitter. National outrage was sparked because it appeared that 14 Black girls had gone missing in 24 hours. That turned out not to be an accurate timeline, but the fact remained; our girls were still missing.
The controversy of the timeline sadly became the story. The families of each of these missing girls felt the same pit of despair as Petito’s parents do today, only without the same focus, attention, or resources that her case is receiving. Those girls and many BIPOC girls around the country go missing daily and hardly get local coverage let alone national attention.
The disproportionate consideration paid to missing people of color is largely assigned to the source of why they go missing. The belief is that BIPOC people run away or there is criminal behavior related to their disappearance. Rarely is the same assumption placed on white individuals. One would think this would put even more onus on these cases to get them solved. Then there is the constant dismissal of people of color, particularly Black and brown girls, because our lives are in fact disposable to some people.
Of course, some skeptics will argue why do we have to make everything about race? Why doesn’t Gabby Petito’s story deserve the attention? That is not the argument here. Petito’s story is tragic and deserves all the attention she has received until her killer has been brought to justice, but so does all the other missing women in this country.
The fact is that the media chooses to cover the stories they believe will gather those most interesting and so far, that does not include the stories of missing Black people. According to The Black and Missing Foundation, nearly 39 percent of missing persons in the U.S. are Black people and yet Black people only make up only 13 percent of the population. And for indigenous women the numbers are even more dire.
I hope Gabby’s family is able to find closure for the tragic way in which she lost her life. I hope Brenda’s family can also find closure one day. Ultimately, I hope we all (those of us in the media and outside of it) pay better attention to all the missing people in this country and shine a wider flood light on their cases with the same intention that Gabby Petito has received.
Ashley Allison is a political strategist and social justice advocate who has worked for President Obama, President Biden and Vice President Harris. She is also a CNN commentator.