Gabby Petito case raises media ethics issues about coverage of missing persons

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By Melanie Andrews and Megan Spencer

The statue of Chief Massasoit (“Yellow Feather”) on BYU’s campus is surrounded by fall leaves. This statue is a representation of Native Americans on BYU’s campus, a group that receives little coverage when it comes to missing persons cases. (Megan Spencer)

The recent Gabby Petito case has brought increased exposure to the disparity in news coverage between missing and murdered people of color and missing and murdered white people. 

According to reports from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, there are 734 unresolved cases of American Indian/Alaska Native missing persons in the U.S. as of Aug. 1, 2021. 

Many missing Indigenous people do not receive news coverage on their cases, leaving their families to shoulder the task of raising awareness and getting help to find their loved ones as seen in the case of Mary Johnson, an Indigenous woman missing from Washington state.

According to a study done by the Urban Indian Health Institute on 506 cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, “95% of the cases in this study were never covered by national or international media.”

However, certain missing women cases have taken national news by storm. One well-known example was the case of Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped for nine months as a teenager in 2002.

Smart’s case gained national attention, which started with Edward and Lois Smart appearing on television and asking for the safe return of their daughter. This media coverage continued for years after Smart’s return, including an Oct. 2003 segment of Dateline NBC, a July 2006 interview and a TV film which aired in June 2017. 

Similar trends in media coverage can be seen for Amber Hagerman, JonBenét Ramsey, Natalee Holloway and most recently, Petito.

What’s the difference?

This trend of national coverage of missing white women has been dubbed by the late public television journalist Gwen Ifill as “missing white woman syndrome.” This refers to the disparity in news media coverage of missing person cases involving young, white women or girls in relation to the lack of media coverage in cases involving people of color, according to NPR.

Petito, a social media “van-life” influencer, was reported missing by her parents on Sept. 11. Within days, her name was commonplace as she became a national sensation and gained extreme popularity on social media platforms. What began as attempts to reunite parents with their missing daughter soon became an influx of amateur TikTok detectives attempting to solve a missing persons case. 

In a press conference in Long Island on Sept. 28, Petito’s parents spoke about giving the same attention to other missing person’s cases. 

“To be honest, it should continue for other people too. This same type of heightened awareness should be continued for everyone,” Petito’s father Joseph said.

Petito’s family started the Gabby Petito Foundation in an effort to bring good from the tragedy of her death. According to the mission statement, the foundation board will provide aid to organizations that help locate missing people and assist domestic violence victims through, “education, awareness and prevention strategies.”

“No one should have to find their child on their own. We are creating this foundation to give resources and guidance on bringing their children home. We are looking to help people in similar situations as Gabby,” Joseph Petito said in a tweet about the foundation. 

The case has been covered by many news outlets and creators on TikTok. The nation rallied with the Petito family to find Gabby and then to find Brian Laundrie, who was the primary person of interest in the case. 

Quint Randle, a communications professor at BYU who has covered cold cases throughout his career, believes a number of factors go into why Petito’s murder gathers so much national attention. 

Randle said Petito was the average white “van-life” social media influencer. As an unlikely target, her story seems even scarier and out of the ordinary. 

“Violence towards people of color and women of color seems more routine,” Western and Latino history professor Ignacio Garcia said. “Women of color are often seen as being victims of their own mistakes.”

Garcia said white women are seen as helpless victims in tragic acts of violence they had nothing to do with. In the case of Petito, she and her boyfriend were on an exciting adventure when Gabby was killed. This made her death more novel and out of the ordinary. 

“The reality is this, and maybe it’s one that people don’t like, and that is that beautiful people get much more attention. Successful, beautiful, talented (people) tend to receive more attention. They also have much more resources,” Garcia said. 

This attitude, Garcia said, is coming from both society and the media. He said he believes a change in this damaging attitude is needed to alter the way missing people’s cases are treated.

Erika Yellowhair, president of BYU’s Tribe of Many Feathers Club and citizen of the Diné tribe, has personal experience with the challenges and pain that comes when people go missing. Yellowhair said while she was attending high school on her reservation in New Mexico, a girl named Ashlynne Mike from the nearby elementary school was waiting for her bus when she was kidnapped.

The reservation community was notified she was missing via Facebook and their local newspaper, Yellowhair said. However, no Amber Alert was sent out. 

Yellowhair said in the days following Mike’s disappearance, a community member, Graham Biyáál, gathered people to look for her. His search team found her body in a rural place by a New Mexico landmark, Ship Rock. She was beaten, raped and murdered.

“I remember attending candlelight vigils being scared about my own safety, and wondering how this happened,” Yellowhair said. “I was terrified about how we didn’t see support for her and how it was community led, but why weren’t others looking for this little girl?” 

Yellowhair explained that for missing Indigenous people to get national coverage, news outlets need to stay up to date on what happens in the reservations. “We are the minority of the minorities.”

Since then, Yellowhair said the best way to find missing people on the reservation is through Facebook pages. 

Erika Yellowhair stands on the Navajo reservation in Sanostee, New Mexico. Erika is the president of BYU’s Tribe of Many Feathers club. (Courtesy of Erika Yellowhair)

“I know that I have never in my life seen a minority woman’s case gain as much nationwide attention as Gabby’s,” communications student Britney Sam said.

Sam is full-blooded Indigenous, from the Diné tribe, but was never aware of the missing Indigenous peoples crisis until college because she did not grow up on a reservation. 

Sam said she believes everyone can help raise awareness and get involved by sharing information on social media, educating themselves, and participating in local fundraising events such as the Utah Tribal Relief fund, the Utah Dine Bikeyah organization, or the Partnership with Native Americans

“We, Indigenous people, are not large in numbers compared to the general population in America, but I think by having other advocates outside of our community and having this crisis be included in multiple conversations will help to gain awareness and media coverage,” Sam said. 

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