Missing Persons Coverage: The disappearance and death of Gabby Petito has opened a dialogue over an alleged inequity in missing persons coverage based on race. Here’s what both sides are saying. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter. Above is a photograph of media crew members outside the Laundrie family home in North Port, Florida, on September 20, 2021.
Top Story: Missing Persons Coverage
This past summer, a young couple named Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie left Blue Point, New York in a converted van to visit national parks out West. They visited Kansas, Colorado, and Utah, where police found the pair “engaged in some sort of altercation,” according to a report released by the Moab City Police Department. Shortly after the dispute, Laundrie flew home to Tampa from Salt Lake City on August 17 before returning on August 23 to “rejoin Gabby.” Towards the end of the month, Petito’s mother said the last text message she received from her daughter came on August 30, and then on September 1, Laundrie allegedly returned to Florida in the van without Petito. After a missing person’s report was filed and search parties mobilized, Petito’s body was ultimately discovered in Wyoming on September 19. During that time, Laundrie went missing after being named a person of interest. As pictured above, media outlets quickly surrounded the Laundrie family home in North Port, Florida. Yesterday, the Wyoming medical examiner who performed the autopsy on 22-year-old Petito hosted a news conference to discuss his findings. The disappearance and death of Petito has stoked national attention. Here’s how media outlets from both sides of the aisle are reacting to the case.
On The Right
Right-leaning outlets scold a few high-profile commentators on the left for using this tragic story to further a narrative that the US is racist. The second author outlines why he thinks the entire media industry is so focused on this story: ratings.
“Why we feel so deeply about Gabby Petito” David Marcus, Fox News Opinion: “Gabby Petito was an influencer, an artist, and that is why her loss has captured the heart of America. There are those on the left who, as usual, want to make her death a symbol of America’s racism. MSNBC’s Joy Reid calls it ‘missing white women syndrome.’ CNN’s Don Lemon points to white privilege. It is reductive, dismissive, and ignorant nonsense. It also denies Petito agency for how she chose to live. It is not racism that made her disappearance a cause celebre, it is her spark and creativity. … We gave the kids this void we call the Internet, we cannot be surprised that they are extremely online. … Many of us feel deeply about Gabby Petito. It’s because the kid went for it. The mark she left on the world was not her death, but her life.”
“Regarding Gabby Petito” Erick Erickson, RCP: “Joy Reid’s complaint holds a kernel of truth. Petito was an attractive young woman with a large following on social media. The media is obsessed with ratings. In particular, the media is obsessed with ‘the demo,’ or media consumers ages 25 to 54 … The media covers Petito’s death hoping to convert some of her hundreds of thousands of followers into brand-loyal news consumers whom advertisers want to reach. Beyond those hundreds of thousands of followers, there are millions more mostly young women who have become obsessed with true-crime podcasts and stories. … The media wants viewers. A young, blonde 22-year-old female social media influencer left dead in the forests of Wyoming, presumably killed by her now-on-the-run boyfriend will get ratings. It might convert young news consumers into longtime news consumers. The media has a business interest in caring about Gabby Petito.”
“Media Outlets Claim the Coverage of Gabby Petito’s Death Is Proof of Racism” Nate Hochman, National Review: “The media’s coverage of Gabby Petito’s tragic death is racist, according to … the media. … There is, apparently, no event too significant, no tragedy too grievous, to escape use as a narrative bludgeon. Sure, the ‘logic’ goes, Petito’s death may have been tragic. But what matters is not that she died in horrific and shocking circumstances. What matters is that her death highlights systemic inequalities in how we talk about deaths. … This utterly predictable routine is the result of an ideology with no concept of human dignity — no understanding of the inherent worth of the human person beyond the sum total of his or her race, gender, and sexual orientation. To these people, we are all merely positions on the intersectional hierarchy.”
On The Left
Left-leaning outlets amplify voices who believe Petito’s case is receiving more attention because of her skin color. The second author highlights just how much airtime the case has received across the spectrum.
“The Long American History of ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome'” Helen Rosner, The New Yorker: “The photos of Petito that filled our screens showed an attractive, blond, young white woman … [They] dwarfed the attention that both the media and law enforcement pay to other missing and murdered people, especially those who are Black and indigenous. (A report from earlier this year by the University of Wyoming showed that, in the past decade, seven hundred and ten indigenous people were reported missing in the state.) … The story of the Petito case—from the way it has gripped the country to the racial dynamics of how it’s been covered—is, of course, part of a larger cultural habit of turning disappearances and deaths into entertainment. … There’s something about the missing young, beautiful white woman that has a lot of symbolic weight in America [plus] … we’re a nation of crime experts now.”
“Even within the media, some question the amount of Gabby Petito coverage” Jeremy Barr, The Washington Post: “In [one] seven-day period, Petito had been mentioned 398 times on Fox News, 346 times on CNN, and 100 times on MSNBC … This has reignited a long-standing debate about whether the American media disproportionately covers tragedies involving young White women while largely ignoring the plights of missing women of color … The media coverage that has followed ‘reveals the tension that has always existed in TV news, which is the tension between: Do we devote resources to a story because our audience is interested in it, or do we devote resources to a story because it’s important and consequential?’ industry analyst Andrew Tyndall said. … Tyndall has interpreted the heavy coverage of this particular case as a sign of ‘coronavirus fatigue’ — that television networks [are] tired of covering a pandemic that shows no signs of abating.”
“The tragic messages the Gabby Petito case sends” “The tragic messages the Gabby Petito case sends” Sonia Pruitt, CNN Opinion: “Gabby Petito’s tragic case kicked off a national conversation about the lasting spotlight that is often given to missing White people, compared to their non-White counterparts. … As a former police captain, it is particularly concerning what message this could be sending to perpetrators: that young people of color are easy targets because few will care to look for them. … According to a 2020 report from Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center, about 36% of missing persons (age 0-17) are Black, even though they account for only 14% of children in the US. … It is our duty to amplify the voices of missing children of color because they cannot do it themselves. Their lives are valuable. Let’s bring them home.”
Flag This: Missing Persons Coverage
According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons (NamUS) database, which is funded by the US Department of Justice, more than 600,000 persons of all ages go missing every year, and approximately 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered annually.
“The vast majority of missing persons cases are resolved relatively quickly,” according to World Population Review. For example, in 2012, there were 661,000 missing persons cases reported; more than 659,000 of them were resolved within a year. Additionally, researchers say that the number of these cases has declined over the past decade, as improved communication now makes it easier to keep in touch with and track others.
Flag Poll: Missing Persons Coverage
Do you think US media is focusing too much, too little, or just the right amount on the Gabby Petito case? Comment below to share your thoughts.