Why do missing persons cases get differing amounts of attention?

Morgan Dowler | Cartoonist

The disappearance and death of Gabby Petito has taken the country by storm. While this isn’t the first time social media has added its perspective and outcry in these scenarios, we have to question why this case has an overwhelming response from the media. Gabby Petito isn’t the only woman to have gone missing this year. Is this social media taking a knack at solving a complex 21st century murder mystery? Why is she gaining attention while others are left in the dark?

To summarize, Gabby Petito and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, planned to go on a monthslong trip exploring national parks across the country. Starting the trip in July from New York, they weren’t planning to come back for four months, which would be around October. After a few social media posts highlighting their adventure and “van life,” though, the trip took a turn.

On Sept. 1, Laundrie returned to his home in Florida without Petito. By Sept. 11, Petito was reported missing by her family, and the FBI included Laundrie as a person of interest on the basis that he was the last person to have seen Petito. On Sept. 19, human remains were found in a national forest in Wyoming, and by Sept. 21, the FBI confirmed it to be Petito.

Almost right from Petito’s disappearance, social media exploded with conspiracy theories, support accounts and trending hashtags. Is the trend of being an internet sleuth and solving crimes just the beginning of where misinformation and inaccurate ideas start to spread? Across multiple platforms, people were digging through clues to try and solve the case on Twitter rather than let law enforcement take charge. While certain details like hair color may not take priority, followers on social media made a point to draw attention to the smallest items, ultimately helping the FBI find evidence for the case. Petito’s personal Instagram account has reached over one million followers throughout the ongoing investigation. Her last post on Aug. 25 has the condolences of thousands of celebrities and “fans” after her death was confirmed.

Before she caught the attention of news outlets across the country, Petito wasn’t the only missing person reported in 2021. One reason Petito’s case has caused such a stir is because it seems to line up with many characteristics following the white woman syndrome, in which there’s a mainstream media focus on missing white women, or girls, giving the appearance of a disinterest in cases of missing people of color. While this term is typically thrown around with a false or left connotation, studies have shown that there’s valid reasoning behind how these cases proceed in terms of media coverage and the intensity of follow-through from both the public and crime officials. In Petito’s situation, a story about a young adult missing from a trip she took with her fiancé is quite similar to other stories about missing people, yet she caught nationwide coverage.

Take away the social media attention, and what’s unique or different about Petito’s case? Every missing person report is filed with emotions of wanting that person back and hoping that they’re OK. In this regard, Petito is just like every other missing girl. While her death was unexpected and sad, it doesn’t mean she should gain more attention than other similar cases. The amount of social media coverage this one story gained caused a domino effect and made the nation believe there was something inconspicuous that the public needed to figure out, when in reality, police officials and FBI agents were doing their job. Social media shouldn’t be dictating what news is and what catches our attention. Don’t let the misinformation and new trends take over real-life crime investigations that lead to actual consequences.