“What I’m most concerned about is the amount of coverage, and if you look at newsrooms, the coverage decisions are made in places that continue to be disproportionately white,” said Mr. Reynolds, whose organization works with journalists of color. “These cases tend to involve white, middle-class women. And that resonates with assignment editors and news organizations. The one area of diversity that has actually improved relatively well in news media is actually women, particularly white women, in leadership roles.”
The disappearances of people of color tend not to generate the same volume of media interest, despite their occurring at a higher rate. A report from the University of Wyoming found that 710 Indigenous people were reported missing from 2011 to 2020 in that state, which is where Ms. Petito’s remains were found.
Fifty-seven percent of those were women, and 85 percent were children. A study in 2016 of four national and local news outlets found that Black people were “significantly underrepresented” in coverage of missing persons compared with their numbers in the F.B.I.’s tally of cases.
Ms. Ifill, who died in 2016 after a distinguished career that included stints at The Washington Post, The Times and NBC News before she became the co-anchor of “PBS NewsHour,” raised the issue of what she called “missing white woman syndrome” at a journalism conference in 2004. “If there’s a missing white woman, we are going to cover that, every day,” she noted wryly.
In the years since, national news outlets have continued to deliver frequent, detailed reports that made young, white women such as Natalee Holloway, who disappeared in 2005 while vacationing in Aruba, into household names.
“Research, including my own work, has shown that white missing women and girls do receive more initial coverage and they do receive more repeated coverage,” said Danielle Slakoff, an assistant professor at California State University, Sacramento, who researches criminal justice and the media.
She said that white women were typically depicted as good people, while women of color were often characterized as risk-takers or somehow complicit in their own disappearances.