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Compassion Project October 2021

24-Hour Domestic Violence Hotline: 208.343.7025 24-hour Rape Crisis Hotline: 208.345.7273 (RAPE)

What Can We Learn From the Petito Media Frenzy?

The mystery surrounding the life and death of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old social media influencer, has captured the imagination of the country. Her death, while undoubtedly a tragedy, has highlighted the chasm between how the American media treats the disappearance of young white women and how they treat the disappearance of women of color, and Indigenous women in particular. 

Gabby’s remains were found near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and authorities say her death was likely a homicide. Police body cam footage and anecdotal evidence suggest that she was in an abusive relationship with her fiance Brian Laundrie. Her experience with domestic abuse is in no way unique. 

According to a report by Wyoming’s Taskforce on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons, over 700 Indigenous people went missing in the state between 2011 and 2020. Indigenous people are just three percent of the population in Wyoming, yet they made up 21 percent of homicides in the state since 2000. Despite the discrepancy in rates of homicide, missing Indigenous women are less likely to receive media coverage than their white counterparts according to the report. 

Media coverage of Indigenous women often differs from that of white women in ways that perpetuate racist stereotypes that support the systemic oppression of Indigenous peoples. Coverage of missing Indigenous people frames their stories in ways that place blame on victims and their families. In Wyoming media, coverage of indigenous victims was more likely to have negative character framing, violent language, general locations and essentialism (reducing someone to nothing more than a body). Coverage of white victims like Gabby Petito was more likely to have positive framing, articles focused solely on them, and exact locations. 

Victim-blaming narratives have dangerous implications for Indigenous women. They can deter people from reporting that their loved ones are missing. Limited media coverage also sends the message to perpetrators that Indigenous women’s lives are less valuable and that their deaths are less likely to be investigated. Media is powerful–it can further narratives that marginalize the lives and voices of Indigenous women and their communities. 

We must ask ourselves: “Why is this particular case garnering so much attention and whose stories are not being told? Am I contributing to and upholding a culture that values some lives more than others?” 

In order to value and protect all victims, we must question dominant narratives and be critical of the media we consume and share. Holding ourselves and each other accountable is important not just during Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but year-round. 

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