Gabby Petito Media 'Frenzy' Highlights a Disparity

Some see 'missing white woman syndrome' at play
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 21, 2021 7:54 AM CDT
Gabby Petito Case 'Frenzy' Is Off the Charts
This combo of photos provided by FBI Denver via @FBIDenver shows Gabrielle "Gabby" Petito.   (Courtesy of FBI Denver via AP)

The popular true-crime podcast Crime Junkie did something it has never done before over the weekend—it rushed out a special episode on a breaking-news story. Host Ashley Flowers explained a big part of the reason why to listeners: “In almost four years of doing this show I have never, I mean never, seen you guys in a frenzy like you are in now,” she said. “Our emails are flooded. Our DMs are flooded.” The story, of course, is the Gabby Petito case, which has consumed the internet of late. Several stories are now exploring the pros and cons of this, from apparent breaks in the case via online posts and self-anointed detectives to the media problem of "missing white woman syndrome." Coverage:

  • Insensitivity: A take on this at BuzzFeed includes an interview with 25-year-old Jessica Dean, whose TikTok on the case spoofed the insensitivity. "Oh, you haven't heard of Gabby Petito?" she says in the clip, imitating countless videos out there. "Oh my god, girl, you are missing out. This stuff is so good. I made a 28-part monetized series on my TikTok all about it, going over every single detail, including her Spotify playlist. I just dig up every inch of this poor girl's life for my personal entertainment."
  • Disparity: The New York Times points out that hundreds of thousands of people go missing in the US each year, but only a rare few get attention on this scale. “We can play the game of, ‘Oh it’s because she was a vlogger’ and all those things, but we can also see that she is a Gen Z, blonde, petite girl, and that is what gets the clicks,” says Alvin Williams, whose own podcast, Affirmative Murder, focuses on true crimes with Black or brown victims. The late journalist Gwen Ifill is the one who dubbed this phenomenon "missing white woman syndrome," back in 2004.
  • Telling stat: In the very state where Petito went missing, Wyoming, 710 Indigenous people went missing between 2011 and 2020, according to University of Wyoming research.
  • Daniel Robinson: USA Today calls attention to a viral tweet over the weekend that uses the Petito case to draw attention to missing Black geologist Daniel Robinson, who disappeared in Buckeye, Arizona, about two months ago. The family complains that it is doing more to find the 24-year-old than police, per the Arizona Republic. Only his damaged car has been found in the desert.
  • Online Petito leads: Travel vlogger Jenn Bethune posted a video from her own travels to Wyoming in August, including footage of what appears to be Petito's van. But police sound a little peeved. "It looks like their vehicle ... but we learn about it through them posting on YouTube, talking about it," a rep from the North Port police department in Florida tells BuzzFeed. "Why wouldn’t you just send that to us? And say, 'This might be helpful to our investigation,' instead of giving a 14-minute commentary on [it]." Another TikTokker, Miranda Baker, posted videos about her and her boyfriend picking up a lone hitchhiker she thinks was Petito fiance Brian Laundrie on Aug. 29 at Wyoming's Grand Teton Park.
  • Summing up: Petito's status of being on online influencer herself—she was chronicling her "van life" road trip—also is contributing to the intense interest in the case. Whatever the reasons, "we can simultaneously have a conversation about how Indigenous, Black, or Brown people who go missing don’t get near the same media attention as we’re trying to help find this poor woman," says Dean, the BuzzFeed interviewee. "Two things can be true at once. It would be great if every person who went missing got this kind of attention."
(Laundrie remains missing, as authorities try to confirm the identity of remains believed to be Petito's.)

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