The influence of media in the Gabby Petito case

This combo of photos provided by FBI Denver via @FBIDenver shows missing person Gabrielle "Gabby" Petito. Petito, 22, vanished while on a cross-country trip in a converted camper van with her boyfriend. Authorities say a body discovered Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Wyoming, is believed to be Petito. (Courtesy of FBI Denver via AP)

By Camille Cox | Staff Writer

After blowing up on social media, the Gabby Petito disappearance case gripped the nation and continues to do so as police piece together what happened and search for the murderer.

Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old Youtuber who was declared missing Sept. 11 and identified as dead Sept. 21, caught extensive media attention in the last month. CBS News compiled a detailed timeline of the case, including the most up-to-date information as officials continue the search for her missing fiancé Brian Laundrie, who was with her at the time of her disappearance.

Professor Sommer Dean, who teaches law and ethics at Baylor, believes that this case caught so much attention due to “human nature” and “privilege.”

“I definitely see the critique or the criticism that some people are bringing up like, ‘Why is all this attention focused on this one young white girl when there are tons of black and brown women who go missing all the time and don’t get the same media coverage,’” Dean said. “I think that has to do with privilege and access to certain channels and certain people to make sure that your story gets heard, but of course, that’s not to say that this is not an important story.”

The New York Times reported that the case became largely public on social media due to TikToks posted by Paris Cambell, which gave details and raised awareness of Gabby’s disappearance and murder.

“The case has become a national sensation, in large part because of the awareness generated by people who are watching it unfold on social media,” The New York Times said in its article.

Before Petito’s remains were found and identified Sept. 21, the nationwide manhunt began for Laundrie Sept. 18 after a federal warrant for arrest was issued by Wyoming. Media outlets have continued to cover the search for Laundrie.

“Media is a business, so they know that our human nature sort of thrives on conflict,” Dean said. “Part of the reason it has gotten so much attention is because the media keeps talking about it.”

Many people are following the story and coming up with their own theories on social media outlets like TikTok and Instagram.

Cierra Shipley, public information officer for Waco Police Department, said social media can be helpful and detrimental.

“Social media can be a double-edged sword because it can help, but you really don’t know who’s behind that computer screen,” Shipley said. “There is a sense of reservation sometimes because it’s, ‘Does this person really have viable information that can help this case, or does this person see that this incident is going viral and everyone that posts about it is getting attention.’”

While opinions can vary regarding why certain criminal cases blow up in the media, Shipley and Dean explained that fascination and human nature play a large role.

“It might be the fascination that people find with that particular case and that’s why it goes so nationally known, but there’s nothing that we as a police department can do to push for that,” Shipley said.

“People hear something horrible that’s happened, and they want an explanation for it,” Dean said. “They want to rationalize why this happened to this person and why this couldn’t happen to me, and I think that definitely plays a role in a constant buzz about it.”