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Gabby Petito Case Renews Calls for Media to Shine Spotlight On Missing People of Color

The disappearance of Gabby Petito, a white 22-year-old woman who went missing in Wyoming last month during a cross-country trip with her boyfriend, has drawn a frenzy of coverage on traditional and social media, bringing new attention to a phenomenon known as “missing white woman syndrome.”

One factor that helped people connect with Petito’s case was her Instagram profile, where she lived her dream of traveling the country. Other social-media users contributed their own clues, including a traveling couple who said they spotted the couple’s white van in their own YouTube footage. While authorities haven’t confirmed the video led to the discovery, the vast open spaces of the American West can bedevil search parties for years and anything that narrows the search grid is welcome. Public pressure can also ensure authorities prioritize a case.


Navajo Nation member Ella May Begay, 62, has been missing since June 2021.

 

Many families and advocates for missing people of color are glad the attention paid to Petito’s disappearance has helped unearth clues that likely led to the tragic discovery of her body and they mourn with her family. But some also question why the public spotlight so important to finding missing people has left other cases shrouded in uncertainty. The extensive coverage of the Gabby Petito case is renewing calls to also shine the same kind of spotlight on missing people of color.

But the opportunity to create a well-curated social-media profile, as Petito had, isn’t available to everyone, said Leah Salgado, deputy director of IllumiNative, a Native women-led social justice organization. And even then, getting mainstream media attention can often be difficult in a constantly churning news cycle often dominated by politics geared towards white America.

Just one example shared recently by the Associated Press concerns the case of Navajo rug weaver Ella Mae Begay. Begay, 62, disappeared in June Her niece, Seraphine Warren, has organized searches of the vast Navajo Nation landscape near her aunt’s home in Arizona but is running out of money to pay for gas and food for the volunteers. “Why is it taking so long? Why aren’t our prayers being answered?” she asks.

Begay is just one of the thousands of Indigenous women and other women of color who have disappeared throughout the U.S. Some receive no public attention at all, a disparity that extends to many other people of color. One sample of 247 missing teens in New York and California found 34% of white teens’ cases were covered by the media, compared to only 7% of Black teens and 14% of Latino kids.

David Robinson moved from South Carolina to Arizona temporarily to search for his son, Daniel, who disappeared in June. The 24-year-old Black geologist was last seen at a worksite in Buckeye, outside Phoenix. A rancher found his car in a ravine a month later a few miles away. His keys, cellphone, wallet, and clothes were also recovered. But no sign of him. The Petito saga unexpectedly elevated his son’s case as people used the #findgabypetito hashtag on Twitter to draw more attention to cases of missing people of color.

“I was working hard previously trying to get it out nationally for three months straight,” said Robinson, who’s communicated with other families about the coverage disparity. “This is bigger than I thought. … It isn’t just about my son Daniel. It’s a national problem.”

Public attention is vital in all missing-persons cases, especially in the first day or two after a disappearance, said Natalie Wilson, who co-founded the Black and Missing Foundation to help bring more attention to underreported cases. Dispelling racism and stereotypes linking missing people with poverty or crime is key. “Oftentimes, the families … don’t feel as though their lives are valued,” she said. “We need to change the narrative around our missing to show they are our sisters, brothers, grandparents. They are our neighbors. They are part of our community.”



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