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The disappearance of the “Van-life Blogger” – how the media’s influenced the Gabby Petito case

Gabby Petito, Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Gabby Petito, Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The story of a social media star going missing under suspicious circumstances sounds like the plot of a modern-day crime movie. Unfortunately, the disappearance and recently pronounced murder of Gabby Petito is nothing less than a mystery. 

Petito, 22, went on a road trip with her fiancé Brian Laundrie, 23, towards the west coast. Petito went missing under suspicious circumstances on August 30, 2021. She was always highly active on social media, so this case has a bread crumb trail following their every move, leading those who followed her to believe she was murdered by her fiancé, Laundrie. On Sept. 19, human remains were found where she was last reported to be seen in Teton, Wyoming. Laundrie has been missing since he arrived home without Petito at the beginning of September. 

This case blew up on social media, causing an uproar against law enforcement in the area, and put Laundrie and his family under scrutiny. The “internet sleuths” broke down every detail of this case, which many people believe pushed law enforcement to expand their search, leading to the discovery of Petito’s remains.  

Social media has served as a major news source for this case, leaving many to question if it would have been solved without it. At SUNY Brockport, through the Department of Criminal Justice, Assistant Professor Andrew Baranauskas is an expert on the effects of the media on the criminal justice system and those within it.  

The question is, how has this case received so much media attention with such a high demand for justice? Baranauskas views this case as the result of “White Woman Syndrome,” and the media’s attraction to the “ideal victim.” The woman tied to the railroad tracks is a pretty, blonde, middle-class white woman, which is the demographic not generally stereotyped with crime, but instead instigates a sympathetic view. Baranauskas even mentions reading a headline titled “America’s daughter.” 

“And you know, all the other media attention to it, it’s kind of playing out like a real-life crime documentary. You know we love our real crime dramas in this country,” Baranauskas said. 

Baranauskas believes it most certainly does. Based on his research, he concludes if this were the same case, but with a black internet creator rather than a white one, the coverage would not have been the same. 

Baranauskas also adds the factor of how many locations are included in this story which ordinarily are never talked about. When there is a big story involving an area with little media coverage, local channels will jump on the bandwagon, like Kansas, which are often not discussed in news stories. Baranauskas discusses the “proximity aspect,” where many of these stations can create their narratives, boasting their towns so it can attract attention to them. This is quite common in towns like Teton, Wyoming, where Petito’s body was found. 

The Petito case will make history as one of the cases with the most media involvement, resulting in web searches like “Where is Gabby” and “Gabby Petito,” trending on major social media apps. A case like this, according to Baranauskas’ research, is a direct example of how perfect stories are formed using the perfect victim; a simple timeline of events, and the ability to watch this case solved as if it were a real-life true-crime documentary.  

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