How much media coverage should any one news story get? The perennial question is getting renewed debate across the nation’s newsrooms and on social media amid an avalanche of stories about the disappearance and death of Gabby Petito.
Local and national outlets have covered the ins and outs of the story with an intensity of focus not seen in many years, buoyed by the involvement of Internet sleuths who have dedicated themselves to the case.
In a seven-day period ending Wednesday, Petito had been mentioned 398 times on Fox News, 346 times on CNN and 100 times on MSNBC, according to a Washington Post tally, with coverage across news programs and opinion talk shows. Television networks have sent reporters on the road and leaned on their pool of former law enforcement officials to provide commentary about the investigation.
After the 22-year-old New York woman vanished during a cross-country road trip with her fiance, Brian Laundrie, journalists and true-crime enthusiasts latched on to her Instagram chronicle of that journey, in search of clues. On Tuesday, authorities identified her remains in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming. Her death has been tentatively ruled a homicide. Laundrie, who has not been seen since last week, is considered a person of interest in the case.
The FBI said on Sept. 21 that a body found in Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming has been identified as Gabby Petito and that her death was a homicide. (Reuters)
But the heavy coverage of her story 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, who do not regularly generate national coverage.
MSNBC host Joy Reid criticized her own industry Monday on her prime-time show, calling the Petito coverage an example of “missing White woman syndrome,” a term coined by the late journalist Gwen Ifill. “Why not the same media attention when people of color go missing?” asked Reid, who is Black, before echoing a guest’s suggestion that a structural bias in the news business could be at play.
“If the woman who is missing looks like your own daughter or granddaughter, and you’re a newsroom executive, you’re going to gravitate more toward it,” Reid said. “If this is the way that these [other] young women look, maybe they’re not noticed as much. But we need to change that.”
Lynnette Grey Bull, the founder of a Wyoming-based group focused on advocating for missing and trafficked Native Americans, appeared on Reid’s show to make a case for more proportional media coverage. “Unfortunately, us here that live on the reservation, we kind of just adopted an understanding that if we don’t have blond hair and blue eyes, we aren’t prime-time material,” she told The Washington Post in an interview.
According to a report released this year from Wyoming’s Taskforce on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons, 710 Native American people were missing in the state between 2011 and 2020. “Media portrayal of missing persons differed between Indigenous people and White people,” the report concluded. “White people were more likely to have an article written while they were still missing,” while “Indigenous people were more likely to have an article written about them being missing only after they were found dead.”