The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Even within the media, some question the amount of Gabby Petito coverage

‘Why not the same media attention when people of color go missing?’ MSNBC host Joy Reid asked

Journalists wait near the North Port, Fla., home of Gabby Petito's fiance on Sept. 20. (Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

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. (Video: 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.”

CNN contributor Ana Navarro, who, like Reid, expressed sympathy for the Petito family, issued a call on Instagram for more inclusive coverage. “I want to take nothing away from this horrible case. My thoughts are w/her family,” she wrote. “I just want there to be same interest and energy [for] every disappeared young woman in America — Brown, Black, Native-American, transgender.”

Omékongo Dibinga, a professor at American University, argues that the issue is deeply rooted. “People just don’t see us in the same way that they see these White women and White girls,” he said in an interview. “We want the Petito family and everybody else to get justice, but we’re just saying that we want some of that [coverage], too, and we don’t get it.”

The media critique has crossed party lines. Over on the conservative news channel Newsmax, Grant Stinchfield made a similar pitch on his Monday night show. “The very sad reality is: There are thousands of young women missing across the country,” he said. “They go largely ignored by the mainstream media, even though every victim deserves coverage. … None get the media coverage like cute, little White girl Gabby Petito. The media is hyper-focused on White girls with blond hair.”

As the Petito case grips the nation, families of color say their missing loved ones matter, too

Yet Stinchfield’s colleague, Newsmax host Rob Schmitt, attacked Reid’s criticism as overly focused on “skin color,” echoing a critique-of-a-critique made by Fox News host Sean Hannity, who has interviewed Petito’s parents. “Unfortunately the mob in the media, they’re trying to make this heartbreaking story somehow about race,” Hannity said Tuesday night, and “trying to once again needlessly divide Americans.” The host expressed confusion about the coverage dynamic: “I don’t know why some cases get more coverage than others. I can’t explain it.”

During a discussion on ABC’s “The View” on Monday about why the case has gotten so much media attention, co-host Sunny Hostin, who identifies as Afro-Latina, said: “You don’t want it to happen to your daughter or your son. I felt so invested in making sure she was okay. It drew you in for some reason.”

Dibinga praised hosts like Reid, who became the only Black female prime-time host last year, and CNN anchor Don Lemon, who is also Black, for talking about systemic and structural issues at play in the Petito case. But, he said, “it shouldn’t have to be the burden of the non-White journalist to cover these stories.”

While committed to public service journalism, television news networks are still for-profit businesses that often program television shows based mainly on what viewers want to watch, with the ability to measure interest on a moment-by-moment basis and to course-correct accordingly. CNN, for example, took flak for many years for excessively covering the “poop cruise” of 2013 and the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014, both stories that captivated and horrified viewers.

The Petito case and 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. “There’s always been a push and pull inside TV news between those two demands, and economic reasons for either.”

Tyndall has interpreted the heavy coverage of this particular case as a sign of “coronavirus fatigue” — that television networks, tired of covering a pandemic that shows no signs of abating, are interested in a story “that’s not so unrelenting.” But, he predicted: “This time next week, we won’t even be talking about it at all. It’s a one-week wonder.”

Grey Bull, however, expressed optimism that the conversations that are being had now surrounding media coverage of the Petito case and the plight of missing and murdered Native Americans could lead to a paradigm shift in terms of how these issues are covered nationally.

“I always look for the silver lining in things,” she said. “I’m hoping and praying that we’re in a moment where we are able to make a shift.”

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