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I am a hypocrite

| Wednesday, October 27, 2021

For the past month or so, like many other Americans, I have been closely following along the story of Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old woman who went missing in September and whose remains were recently found in the area of Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest. News coverage has been focused mostly on Gabby’s fiancé, Brian Laundrie, who at the time, was accompanying her on a cross-country trip. Just last week, Laundrie’s remains were found in a Florida park. 

Gabby Petito’s case, and the widespread news coverage of it, has caught national attention, ranging from national news coverage to hundreds of TikToks and Instagram posts. If you google “Gabby Petito,there’s about 104,000,00 results and “Brian Laundrie” leads to about 24,700,000 results. TikTok is flooded with videos ranging from updates about her case to theories of what could have happened. 

However, the story of Gabby Petito is, unfortunately, nothing that the world hasn’t seen before. Gabby Petito is one of many missing persons cases in which the individual is found deceased every year, and like millions of other women, presumed to be a victim of domestic abuse. 

So why has this case caught so much national attention, particularly among young adults?

One explanation I can offer is that the story of Gabby Petito is a testament to what many women fear the most: To be in an abusive and toxic relationship that escalates to a fatality. Even worse, Gabby may have died at the hands of someone she loved and trusted. Brian Laundrie was Gabby’s fiancé, not someone random she just met at a bar. 

Another explanation could be what is known as “missing white woman syndrome, which is the idea that news and media coverage covers the missing person cases of young, white, upper-middle class women at a much higher degree than missing person cases involving people not fitting those descriptors. 

There is also an argument that this public reaction is simply an extension of the cultural fascination with true crime stories in America. There’s an obsession and popular trend of following crime stories as they unfold, like with Petito’s, or discussing them to egregious lengths, like with the Crime Junkie podcast. Search “true crime” on Netflix and there’s countless documentaries that delve into the real stories of crimes and the people who committed them. There is not enough space in The Observer to list all the TV shows, movies and documentaries that come to my mind. I believe the fascination with the Gabby Petito case is likely a combination of all three explanations I offer, each of which pique public interest.  

But what about my own choice to write a column about Gabby Petito? Let me be clear, I could have written about several other topics and have been given the creative freedom to do so, but I specifically chose to write about Gabby Petito.  

Given my personal feelings towards the American “true crime” culture, I am a hypocrite. In short, I find the grip that American true crime has on pop culture to be quite dehumanizing. The coverage of true crime for entertainment purposes builds too much sympathy for the people at fault, and capitalizes on the trauma and tragedy of others, and I fear that it is a matter of time before there is a documentary about Gabby Petito on Netflix. 

So by writing and publishing this article, I’m feeding into the true crime culture that I seek to condemn. I am giving the case attention that it might not otherwise have, even if it’s only amongst my extended family that routinely read my articles. However, rather than to entertain, my intent is to do exactly what the Gabby Petito case has done to me: To evoke conversation, find the truth and ultimately find my role in relation to her story.  

Engaging with stories of true crime, ones that did not gain national attention, have evoked change within myself. Last summer, I worked at the criminal district attorney’s office in my hometown and came face to face with both the victims and perpetrators of some of the most heinous crimes you can imagine. I will never forget observing a case involving the continuous assault of a child under the age of 14: Sitting across the room of the victim and listening to her share the details of the abuse she endured. Watching the prosecutors handle her case with extreme caution and sensitivity, while not sacrificing their demand for tough justice, was inspirational. It also forced me to reflect on what kind of work I want to do in the future and how I can bring about justice for other children like that young girl. 

At worst, this case will do nothing but become a popular crime documentary or series on Netflix, one that capitalizes on the misfortune and tragedy of Gabby’s loved ones. At best, the Gabby Petito case will inspire some people to go into law enforcement or investigative work, or to become more outspoken about domestic violence issues, and will bring about justice for other women like Gabby Petito. 

There is power in sharing stories, but with this power comes great responsibility to produce journalism that is productive, insightful and generally good for those who encounter it. My wish is that other journalists, filmmakers, news reporters and all those who engage with true crime share this intention. 

Claire Miller is a junior majoring in political science, with a minor in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. She is a proud resident of Flaherty Hall and the state of Texas. She can be reached at [email protected] over email.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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