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Gabby Petito case sparks debate over differential coverage of missing people of color

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Posted at 6:04 AM, Sep 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-23 09:10:02-04

TAMPA, Fla. — The case of Gabby Petito has dominated news headlines for the past week and mobilized a legion of social media users. But, the despairing truth is that Petito is just one of many.

By December 2020, the FBI had over 89,000 active missing persons cases, and 45% of those cases involved people of color, like Brittany Tiger.

Tiger disappeared in February 2018. Her body was found in a field in March of that year.

According to her sister, Jessica Tyson, police never opened a murder investigation. In fact, according to Tyson, there wasn't a murder investigation opened until July 2021. She said the FBI opened the investigation after the family pushed for it.

"Thankfully, they picked it up," she said. "That's a blessing, but we've hit so many dead ends that we can't really get our hopes up."

Hundreds of other Native American families are going through the same situation.

Spirit Rain Chasing Hawk is a father of five from South Dakota. His mother, Mabel Ann Eagle Hunter, said he's been missing since Aug. 9.

She said her son was at a family member's house, and the police were called. He was gone by the time they arrived.

According to Eagle Hunter, the police haven't been helpful and local media has not covered his disappearance.

"People should care that someone is missing because he's a human being," she said. "He's a father, a son, and he's loved by his family and his people the same as anybody else."

Watching the news coverage of the Gabby Petito case has been difficult for those families and other minority families looking for someone they love.

"It's evident that we don't matter. We are invisible," Eagle Hunter said.

The numbers from the Urban Indian Institute back up her claims. The institute says more than 6,000 indigenous people — most of them women — are missing and endangered. However, according to the Department of Justice, there are only 116 such cases.

"The numbers from the DOJ just aren't accurate. A third of those people missing are minors, teenage girls," said Alicia Norris, the co-founder of Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality. "We have been shouting from the rooftops for years, and no one is listening."

It's the same for Black Americans. According to the Black and Missing Foundation, of the 543,018 Americans reported missing in 2020. Around 60% were white or Hispanic, and 37% were Black.

Only 7% of the people of color reported missing received media coverage. The reason for the disparity: Most children of color are initially classified as runaways, and adults are labeled as criminals or having some criminal involvement.

"No matter the circumstances, that is still somebody's child," said Yvette Lewis, President of the Hillsborough County NAACP.

Lewis, like many others, said the story of Gabby Petito shows her how powerful the news media and social media are. It also proves, for Lewis, that the news media has to do a better job giving every missing person the same attention it does for white women, like Petito.

"They are quick to say we are a diverse city and country; we're this melting pot. But, the scale is still unbalanced," Lewis said. "It's up to the media to get the story out and tell what needs to be told."

To provide information about a missing person or to report someone missing, follow these links:

This story was originally published by JJ Burton on Scripps station WFTS in Tampa, Florida.