The Instagram page of the American Gabby Petito was full of it for weeks: photos of her and her fiancé Brian Laundrie, posing in spectacular natural areas and at photogenic cliffs. But this month, the image of a fairy-tale tour of the United States crumbled little by little.
First Petito‘s parents lost contact with their daughter, soon after Laundrie returned home on his own. Where his fiancé was, he didn’t want to say. The case was gaining momentum when Petito‘s parents reported their daughter missing. Last Sunday, her body was found in a national park in Wyoming. Laundrie has been without a trace for days.
The case keeps a lot of Americans busy. News agency AP speaks of an “online whirlwind” with home-gardenand kitchen sleuths who share all sorts of their own theories about the matter via TikTok and Instagram, among others. The FBI and police say they have been inundated with tips on Laundrie’s potential location. He is now being searched for in a Florida wildlife sanctuary, including diving teams.
Swipe through the images for a timeline:
Communication scientist Mark Boukes of the University of Amsterdam says that this individual issue is striking. “People are killed every day in the US.”
According to Boukes, two factors play a role in the attention that the Petito case receives. First of all, the story really meets the criteria that journalists use to raise a case to news, he says. “There‘s a lot of footage available from her and her fiancé.”
See an overview in video below:
Petito and Laundrie shared photos and videos from their road trip via social media. Bodycam footage was also taken when officers appealed to the couple in mid-August after an argument. “With such footage, you can create an attractive story,” says Boukes.
The second element that he believes is important is the fact that there are new twists and turns in the story. “They can be brought as news over and over again. The story also follows the plot as we know it from films: hundreds of road trip horror films have been made. It’s recognizable.”
In the United States, there is also a criticism of the much attention to the matter. Multiple media writing about the so-called missing white woman syndrome, a household name that has been used for years by people who feel that white women misses receive more media coverage than similar cases involving non-white women or men.
According to culture and media scientist Dan Hassler-Forest of Utrecht University, this phenomenon has a long history in the United States. “The harrowing thing is that dozens of native American women have gone missing in Utah and in other states and that little attention is paid to it. The same goes for missing African American young women.”
Apart from that, according to Hassler-Forest, also plays a role in the fact that crime stories in the local American news are quite popular. “Once in a while, one breaks through to the national level.”
Social media is playing an increasingly important role in that, says the scientist. “In this case, the disappearance also comes at a time when conspiracy theories are circulating wildly and at the same time a large group of true crime fans are active who want to solve such matters.” With that, they want to strengthen the police force, says Hassler-Forest.
“That group has posted a lot of different theories on social media, which keep things alive. There are also a lot of stories that don‘t seem to be accurate, but they do ensure that information circulates for the media to get back into. That’s how this story stays alive.”