Bob Franken




If you’ve turned on the news or surfed the internet, you likely know who Gabrielle Petito is. Until a few days ago, the 22-year-old “van life” blogger was missing, and her story has been incessantly covered by media around the world. Her body was found days ago in Wyoming, and the search is on for her missing boyfriend, Brian Laundrie. She is also white.
But do we know who Desheena Kyle is? The 26-year-old woman has been missing for almost three months now, from Knoxville, Tennessee. She is among the 75,000 women and girls of color who have vanished, basically ignored by newspapers and TV stations that will pay only occasional attention to them. As for the story or two that’s run when the issue of disparate coverage is raised, we can call them “guilt stories.”
The difference in coverage between Petito and Kyle comes down to “missing white woman syndrome”, a term coined by my late friend Gwen Ifill. It can be described as the inordinate number of stories any time a white female disappears, particularly a young attractive one like Petito.
That’s not to belittle the agony that any parents goes through when their beloved child cannot be found and is a suspected victim of the worst kind of foul play. But don’t moms and dads of color go through the same torture?

There are many reasons why a missing woman’s case might rise to a sustaining story in the media. There are the particular circumstances that set it apart: the prominence in a particular community, for instance. Or it’s just something that appeals to a news executive’s “editorial judgement,” that hard-to-define self-feeding something unique that makes one story a story, but not another.
But ponder the possibility that part of the reason is that editorial executives do not consider women of color to be as compelling a human interest story as white women. Too harsh? The American Society of News Editors annual newsroom diversity survey finds that even in this day and age, about three-quarters of newsrooms are white, approximately 50% white males, as opposed to all other demographic groups combined.
Whether it is unemployment, crime, education, poverty or basic freedom, people of color have been considered less than human. It is not just African Americans, but Native Americans, Latinos, Muslims and Asians, people who are “different” from white and Christian. And before you argue that prejudice was aimed at Irish, Italians and Jews; Irish, Italians and Jews are white. They can more easily assimilate.
This point is going to drive those on the right bonkers. Those who object to anyone even mentioning racism and/or sexism in our history, or even today, are often called subversives.
Conservatives accuse liberals of seeing racism, sexism and other oppressions everywhere. And they cite the most absurd examples of progressive political correctness as opposed to the everyday realities of discriminatory treatment in the United States of America. And they loudly complain, in their grievance-filled way, about a so-called “cancel culture” instead of how to constructively deal with our existing bigotries.
They’d prefer that we are fed a steady diet of homogenized “we are all just one big happy family” pretense and that the day’s big stories are chosen based on neutral considerations that become editorial judgement, instead of being selected by fallible humans making value judgments along with all the prejudices some of us carry, conscious or subconscious.
Additionally, news managers are cynics and recognize what makes a marketable story. All can make Gabby Petito a lead or headliner as opposed to an equally attractive non-pink female who has disappeared under equally compelling circumstances. Plainly and simply, we are not equal.
Part of the reason is that it’s easier to fade into the margins, and as a society, more people of color inhabit the margins, certainly economically. They get less opportunity to become news. Even in the private sector we have a caste system.

© 2021 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap