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Why do some missing person cases generate more media attention than others?

701 active missing person cases in Florida
Posted at 5:09 PM, Sep 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-23 17:51:40-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The recent nationwide coverage of the disappearance and homicide of Gabrielle Petito is raising questions among some about other missing person cases.

"It is important to understand that we want everything done on behalf of Gabrielle Petito," said Lia Gaines, the executive director at the Center for Enterprise Opportunity.

"We want everybody to have equal treatment," she said. "There have thousands of missing Black women who never get attention."

Lia Gaines, Center for Enterprise Opportunity in West Palm Beach
Lia Gaines speaks about why the Gabby Petito case received more media attention than others.

Some have called it, the "Missing White Woman Syndrome" and are now raising awareness about how other missing-person cases are covered in mass media.

"We know how the media rolls. We've seen it time and time again," said Rev. David Wiggins of Delray Beach. "We want to raise awareness, but we also want to move past the point of making you aware."

According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, there are currently 701 active missing person cases in the state.

Rev. David Wiggins of Delray Beach
Rev. David Wiggins says the coverage of Gabby Petito is out of balance compared to other missing person cases.

Dr. Debbie Goodman, a criminologist at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, said the Petito case drew massive attention on television.

"It does as a criminologist make people feel a part of, rather than apart from," Goodman said.

People can go missing for a variety of reasons, but it is in those cases where foul play is suspected that advocates believe media coverage can help break a case.

"Even if you impanel a diverse newsroom, those people are affected by how they’re raised," Gaines said. "They're part of the system, so when you have to survive on that system you may not even realize there’s not equal or balanced coverage."