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Public And Media Feed Off Each Other's Obsession With Gabby Petito Case

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

About 600,000 people are reported missing in the United States every year. Sometimes, it's more than that. Last year, it was slightly less than that. But only a tiny fraction of those people ever get the attention of the general public and the news media. Why is that? The disappearance and death of 22-year-old Gabby Petito is a tragic story for the young woman's family and all who cared for her, but it's the latest example of the tiny fraction of stories that's all over the TV networks, no matter their political leanings, as well as social media. And that reaction is now causing its own reaction to critics within and outside of the media who call it an example of entrenched biases that value some lives over others. That's what we want to talk about now with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, and he's with us now. David, thank you so much for joining us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Pleasure.

MARTIN: So as I think people know, Gabby Petito was on a cross-country trip with her fiance when she disappeared, and, sadly, her remains have since been found and identified in Wyoming. According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons Database, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, as we said earlier, more than 600,000 people of all ages go missing every year. Last year, it was slightly less. Maybe 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered every year. So, objectively speaking, would you say that the amount of coverage this particular story has received is disproportionate? And compared to what? Like, how would we assess whether or not there was disproportionate attention paid to this?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think that that's exactly the right question, and I don't think there's any other answer than of course it's disproportionate. Of course, it's wildly disproportionate. Take any one of these things, absent greater implications for the workings of government or power in society, and say, this has to be news, and these other things don't.

MARTIN: So then the question becomes why this story at this time? Why do you think it's gotten this kind of attention?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, so I think there are a couple of things. Let's start at the base fundamental stimulus response question for editors and producers and news executives. There are strong narrative elements present. This woman documented her journey across the country. That gives you video and pictures and audio to pull from and to try to fill in the blanks of a story and tell a narrative. There's uncertainty involved. We did not know the tragedy of her disappearance would turn out to be the even more fundamental tragedy of her death. And so when you have something where the outcome is not certain, that heightens suspense. It is a cliffhanger, if you will, in nonfiction - that is, in factual storytelling. And then let's be very clear-cut. There is a gender and racial dimension. This is a young woman, and this is a young white woman. And time after time, news organizations have shown again and again that those are the people to whom they are going to spend a wildly disproportionate amount of time on, elevating what are individual tragedies, individual mysteries into seemingly national obsessions.

MARTIN: Well, you mentioned the whole question of race and gender. And as you certainly know because I think you've been reporting on this, advocates for Indigenous women who go missing - I mean, just picking one state like Wyoming - have spoken out about this, that they say how, you know, your hundreds of Indigenous women have gone missing in the same location and haven't gotten this kind of attention. And then there are relatives of African American men who have gone missing, and their feeling is that the media just doesn't care.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. I'd like to play a cut for you. Carmen Bolden Day is the mother of Jelani Day. He was a 25-year-old Black man who went missing in late August. His mother gave this interview earlier this week to the local TV news network Newsy, and here's part of what she had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

CARMEN BOLDEN DAY: I know about Gabby, the missing girl. And she's been missing for two days, and her face is plastered everywhere, and the FBI is involved. And I do not understand why Jelani doesn't get that same coverage. Jelani doesn't get that same attention.

FOLKENFLIK: And, we should point out, authorities in the days since that interview have identified Day's body, but it took weeks for that to happen. You know, think of the episodes that transcend this day and this place, the names that we may remember - Natalee Holloway's disappearance in Aruba, Stacy Peterson, who died, her husband accused of murdering her in Illinois, JonBenet Ramsey, little girl in Colorado, her death. These are subjective choices to elevate them to national attention, and it's also hinged on the idea that the default of who - somebody that you're going to want to know about is going to be somebody white and female.

MARTIN: You know, there's a saying - there they go, and I must follow for I am their leader. And I don't want it to be a cop-out, but the question really is - comes to mind here. Is the media leading the public, or is the public leading the media? Because it is also a fact that one of the primary audiences for, say, true-crime podcasts, for example, and many of the true-crime shows is heavily female. So is the fact here - and, again, I don't want this to be a cop-out here, but is this the media following what they perceive as the public's interests, or is the public interest guiding the media here?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, let me put it this way. The fault, Michel, is not just in our TV stars but in ourselves. TV has given this voracious coverage - 340 segments on local and national cable and broadcast, and that's translated to huge creation of social media content as well. But, yeah, a lot of people have been consuming that, and I'd be willing to bet, once the numbers are sorted out and the estimates are in, that women, particularly white women, will make up an enormous part of that. You know, Petito's Instagram account went from thousands to more than 1.1 million after her death and after the publicity surrounding it. You know, you mentioned podcasts. There are episodes, TikTok videos created and online clubs devoted to tracking and seeing if they can help solve the case. And then that's what people point to.

You know, The New York Times had a story the other day where they said, you know, what they were justifying why they were covering this. And the Times said reporters were camped out to cover this story - as though the reporter's interest, what's spurring the public interest, is then spurring the media's attention again. It's kind of a vicious cycle, if you will, and you've got to think of, you know, newsmagazines like "Dateline" NBC, certain kinds of cable coverage. In the absence of huge breaking news of national consequence, this is their bread and butter. This is how they keep people glued to the TV set. So yeah, we're responsible for our own choices in the media. Never forget that. And at the same time, the public is consuming what we've elevated their attention, and that's why a lot of folks in media are still doing it.

MARTIN: And now that there has been, as we said, a reaction to this reaction and that I see a number of news organizations - including this one - are examining these choices, is anybody revisiting this? I mean, are news outlets talking about addressing this disparity at all?

FOLKENFLIK: I'm not hearing too much about resolving that tension and dynamic and problem. What I am seeing is that news organizations, a lot of news organizations, are giving real time to the disparities, talking about the 700 Native American women in Wyoming who had disappeared over a decade, which I think Wyoming Public Radio did a lot to help surface, talking about Black men who are missing and Black women who are missing, who aren't getting, you know, a fraction of this kind of coverage. Even Fox News, which is a place that tends to deride such concerns as politically correct, wrote its own story about questions about whether people of color and their disappearances or their murders have been given scant treatment in comparison.

Some of them, you could argue, are trying to make it right. Others may well be trying to have it both ways. I've got to say I think NPR and public media has inverted the formula, giving scant coverage but, you know, some coverage to the disappearance and death of this young woman but really focusing on the broader dynamic, the disparities that you've talked about, as the real story that society should focus on at the moment, both in terms of the tragedies for their families but also the way in which we're looking at society and at ourselves.

MARTIN: That is NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thank you so much for sharing your reporting and your insights with us.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.