Work done recently by "Dateline," a national television show, and People Magazine couldn’t have been better timed.
On Aug. 25, People.com published a story headlined “Epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is Focus of Dateline NBC Special.” In it, People Magazine previews Dateline’s hour-long special that features the story of Carla Yellowbird, who was murdered on the Spirit Lake Reservation in northeast North Dakota. The "Dateline" special was titled “The Secrets of Spirit Lake.”
Yellowbird went missing in August 2016 and later was found dead.
In September 2016, word about Yellowbird was spreading — with more than 50,000 mentions of her name on Facebook — but we do not recall mass national media coverage in the days after she was reported missing.
It’s interesting that "Dateline" and People were reporting last month about the disappearance of an Indigenous woman, just a few weeks before a white woman went missing and sparked intense coverage by national media. It surrounded the case of Gabby Petito, a young Floridian who was reported missing on Sept. 11. Major news outlets aired the story daily, usually near the top of their newscasts.
Eight days after she was reported missing, Petito’s body was found near the base of the Grand Tetons in western Wyoming.
It’s a terribly sad case. Petito, by all accounts, was bright, bubbly and happy.
But so are so many women of color, and yet their disappearances garner little, if any, level of national media hype. Consider a University of Wyoming study, released earlier this year, that showed that “media portrayal of missing persons differed between Indigenous people and white people.”
According to the study, “white people were more likely to have an article written while they were still missing (76% of articles on white missing people, compared to 42% of articles on Indigenous missing people). Indigenous people were more likely to have an article written about them being missing only after they were found dead (57% of articles about Indigenous missing people, compared to zero articles about white missing people). Twenty-three percent of the articles about missing white people said they were found alive and well, while zero articles discussed missing Indigenous people who were found alive and well.”
To be fair, several national outlets in recent years have broadcast or published reports about the lack of attention that missing women of color often receive. The "Dateline" show last month is just one.
But these stories are only about the trend itself, and not about individual cases. And they rarely if ever achieve the high level of interest that often comes when a white woman goes missing.
The Petito case is tragic, and it will be unforgettable thanks to the massive media coverage that blew up around it.
Perhaps that intense media coverage — and the questions that have arisen about media disparity — will help us remember that minority women are disappearing, too, and that our national perspective on those cases must be fine-tuned in the future.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, Grand Forks Herald.