Hajin Cho / Gavel Media

The Warped Coverage of the Gabby Petito Case

The internet is aflame trying to find out all they can about Gabby Petito. Petito was a 22-year-old woman who was reported missing, and as of September 22, found dead in Teton County, Wyoming. 

Petito was completing a road trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, in a white van they had refurbished, when she was murdered. The couple left in June, traveling the country through July and August. On August 12, police were called on the couple due to a “physical fight” between them. Seemingly resolved, Petito texts her mother on August 27th. This is the last correspondence Petito’s family believes to be from her. 

On September 1, Laundrie returns home without Petito. He doesn’t contact the Petito family or engage with their desperate questions involving the whereabouts daughter. On September 11, her family reports Petito missing. Less than a week later, the Laundrie family admits they’ve not seen or heard from Laundrie since September 14. On September 21, remains found in Teton County are confirmed to be Petito’s. As of today, Laundrie is still missing. 

Before Petito’s tragic and untimely death, she was trying to grow a social media following, her feed curated to fit an “influencer” lifestyle. Once her disappearance reached major media outlets, Petito’s followers had grown from a thousand to over one million. This major jump in numbers can be attributed to how popular her case has become on social media platforms, primarily TikTok. 

The true crime genre booms on TikTok and those on the app are impatient to see a suspenseful case unfold right before their eyes. Videos treat Petito as a puzzle waiting to be solved, rather than a human being who had her life ripped from her. There is little respect paid to her family; an incredible number of videos have been made acting as though Petito is a new episode in their favorite crime podcast. The Petito family has been subject to false hope, as TikToks involving “sightings” of Petito around the country circulate around the internet. Under a video posted of a woman at a Californian truck stop who matched Petito’s description, one user went so far as to comment “Her dad says it’s not [her] but I don’t see how he can say that. They look identical.” Another replied, “You cannot convince me that that is not her”. It was, in fact, not her. 

Many users have taken it upon themselves to “solve” Petito’s murder case. Armchair investigators are pouring over everything from police camera videos to Petito’s personal Spotify playlists, trying to piece together her murder. User red.white.and.bethune found the white van they traveled in, and upon further inspection, pointed out that it looked as though someone was digging in the background. Many are quick to say Laundrie is digging in the video (unconfirmed). Another account, robandhaley, has made around 70 videos, updating their followers on the Petito case while sprinkling in personal theories. User nerdyaddict visited the Laundrie home and stood outside, asking Laundrie’s mother why she isn't helping the police and if she is covering up for her son. 

TikTok has sensationalized this case. As a platform obsessed with true crime, Petito’s investigation skyrocketed to the top of the algorithm. Whether this amount of support has helped or hindered the investigation, there is no question how invested the internet is. 

This amount of engagement has garnered controversy as the uproar around Petito’s murder creates comparisons with cases of missing women of color, highlighting how little attention they are given by major news and social media platforms. TikTok user navajoniffler posted a video with the caption, “Gabby Petito goes missing and becomes America’s daughter. Where’s our stolen kidnapped indigenous sisters, mothers and daughters?” While many agreed with her, some called her words tasteless. Comments began to accuse her video of making missing persons cases a competition, claiming it wasn’t the time to juxtapose different investigations. 

While Petito’s loved ones mourn, true crime podcast enthusiasts anxiously wait for Petito’s episode to air. When that hour ends, there will be more stories to listen to of young women being murdered. While there is outrage and deep sorrow in those who knew Petito and those who tried to investigate her death, there is no recognition of the big picture, nothing to give this tragic event any staying power in the American media system. Society’s acute obsession with true crime, especially the community formed on TikTok around the subject, appears to only care about the celebrity of a case rather than the ones left behind.

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Lover of brunch and the O.C. Cannot spell the word defeiently to save my life.

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