Erick Erickson / September 24, 2021

Regarding Gabby Petito

People who did not know Petito feel like they knew her. They connected to her online.

Twenty-two-year-old Gabby Petito is dead. Authorities found her body in Wyoming. Her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, returned home to Florida after Petito went missing on their cross-country excursion through national parks. Laundrie subsequently walked off into a wilderness preserve, presumably to flee from authorities who now wish to question him.

The story broke a week ago. It sailed past me until my 16-year-old daughter asked what I thought about it. I had no idea what she was talking about. My wife, the next day, came home from the gym and asked about it. A 20-something young woman at her gym was talking about it. None of the women over 30 had heard about it.

The media swooped in, and the story took on new life. A few days ago, the professional progressive talking points regurgitator at MSNBC, Joy Reid, blasted the media for covering Petito only because she is a young, blonde, white girl. Reid noted that plenty of nonwhite women go missing but the media ignores them. Last time I checked, Reid has a show on MSNBC named after herself, and she, a member of the media, has also chosen to ignore all those stories.

Petito is dead. Her boyfriend has fled. Her parents are grieving. Professional race-baiters have hijacked her memory to turn her into a racial talking point. There are a few things worth noting even for those who have paid no attention.

Joy Reid’s complaint holds a kernel of truth. Petito was an attractive young woman with a large following on social media. The media is obsessed with ratings. In particular, the media is obsessed with “the demo,” or media consumers ages 25 to 54. Specifically, media advertisers believe if a 25- to 35-year-old can be converted into a consumer of particular media or products, they’ll retain brand loyalty for decades.

The media covers Petito’s death hoping to convert some of her hundreds of thousands of followers into brand-loyal news consumers whom advertisers want to reach. Beyond those hundreds of thousands of followers, there are millions more mostly young women who have become obsessed with true-crime podcasts and stories. The humor site, The Babylon Bee, recently ran a story capturing this phenomenon. The headline was, “Guy Being Murdered Just Glad He’ll Finally Be On a Podcast.” “It was while the ax was dropping into his spleen that Tony Marcus realized a lifelong dream was coming true. He had been a fan of true crime podcasts for years but never dreamed he would get to be on one. Now, totally unexpectedly, it was happening,” their story began.

The media wants viewers. A young, blonde 22-year-old female social media influencer left dead in the forests of Wyoming, presumably killed by her now-on the run boyfriend will get ratings. It might convert young news consumers into longtime news consumers. The media has a business interest in caring about Gabby Petito.

There is another angle to this as well. Petito was a social media influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers. She died tragically. In a small bit of irony, the location of her murder was discovered by another YouTuber who was editing video of a trip. He happened to have passed what looked like Petito and Laundrie’s van in the woods in Wyoming. He relayed the location to police who were able to find Petito’s body nearby.

In the postmodern era, people are more emotional and relational. People who did not know Petito feel like they knew her. They connected to her online. They are grieving. The larger cultural story here is how so many could care about and relate to someone they do not know and become invested in her life. That is happening more and more, and those same people will keep bypassing the media organizations in favor of the relatable individuals they find on social media and follow online and off. The emotional and relational connection to individuals now transcends organizational brand. People are connecting to people, not brands, and one of those people is now tragically dead.

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