Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls need more attention and media coverage

The media has an ethical responsibility to advocate for Indigenous lives

Indigenous women are important, and should be treated as such. PHOTO: Dulcey Lima / Unsplash

by Kelly Chia, Staff Writer

Content warning: Mention of murder, disappearances,and anti-Indigenous racism

In Canada, 1,200 Indigenous women have been estimated to be missing or murdered from 1980 to 2012. However, many Indigenous rights groups report that the number is much higher — nearer to 4,000 — because cases are underreported. Despite experiencing these disproportionately higher rates of violence, investigation efforts for missing Indigenous women cases tend to be slow compared to white women. Missing Indigenous women cases need to be treated with the same kind of urgency. 

Journalist Gwen Ifill coined the term “missing white woman syndrome” to explain the disparate news coverage a missing white woman’s case receives over a missing woman of colour. 

For example, Gabby Petito’s disappearance amassed a lot of media attention and awareness, leading to more pressure being put on her case. After Petito was reported as missing on September 11, her family spoke at news conferences and her case blew up on social media. Her remains were confirmed to be found on September 21. Investigation efforts for this tragedy are what Petito’s family deserves, and the same effort should be given to the thousands of families of missing Indigenous women. 

Wyoming, the state where Petito disappeared, reports that about 400 Indigenous women went missing in the last decade. Additionally, the report found 51% of all white homicides had news coverage. In contrast, only 18% of Indigenous women homicides were reported on.

Less coverage leads to less resources and pressure to find these women. It’s hard to imagine that this communicates anything other than the message that missing Indigenous women do not matter as much as their white counterparts. 

When we hear about missing and murdered Indigenous women, it’s in the collateral ways news media and police have failed to report on their deaths. It’s as if they can only recognize their mistakes when reflecting on the thousands of Indigenous women who have gone missing. I can’t recall the last time the news media covered a missing Indigenous woman to the extent they have Petito. 

Colonial legacies and oppression contribute to Indigenous women being vulnerable. Mainstream media has the ethical obligation to break free from colonial frameworks and centre Indigenous voices. The erasure of Indigenous cases is a way of silencing these tragedies as if they’ve never happened. No one deserves this.  

Candace Lowe-Zamora, a member of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians, says there is a tendency to victim-blame when Indigenous people do receive news coverage. “They always focus on something negative like, ‘Were they on drugs or drinking alcohol?’ And then they say, ‘Well, they shouldn’t have been doing this or that.’ But with Gabby, she was just treated as a victim, as she should be.” Coverage like this only perpetuates negative connotations about Indigenous people. 

As Lowe-Zamora says, by framing missing victims around stereotypes like alcohol consumption, Indigenous women don’t remain just as victims in their coverage. Why would people be as keen to find them when the news media doesn’t try to humanize them like they would a white woman? It garners less sympathy, making their disappearances seem like an inevitability rather than a tragedy. 

Petito receiving substantial news coverage is definitely not her fault. It’s the media outlets that cover the stories of missing white women much more intensely than they’d cover the thousands of Indigenous women that is significant. Indigenous lives deserve to be equally grieved and their cases deserve equal attention.

Leave a Reply