Gabby Petito was just one of hundreds of missing people we should have valued, Robert Gehrke writes

Our headlines and attention reflects what we value as a society, and what we don’t.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pictures of Gabby Petito, candles and flowers adorn a table at a vigil at Sugarhouse Park, Sept. 22, 2021 in her honor. Petito, the missing 22-year-old whose remains were found Tuesday in the area of the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area of Bridger-Teton National Forest on the east boundary of Grand Teton National Park.

Mariana Lopez, 15, disappeared from her Herriman neighborhood back in mid-March.

Four days earlier, Joey Jonsson, 17, went missing from Midvale.

Angel Lozano-Martinez has been missing from American Fork since November.

You probably didn’t hear about those kids vanishing. I didn’t until I went looking for information online about disappearances in Utah.

But they were all every bit as missed by someone as was Gabby Petito, whose disappearance seized the nation’s attention and occupied national headlines for weeks.

I am not pointing this out to, in any way, shape or form, diminish the utter awfulness of what happened to Petito or minimize the pain felt by her friends, family and loved ones. It’s an experience those of us fortunate enough to not have had someone ripped away from our lives can’t understand.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

But every time America’s attention is consumed by an attractive young white woman’s disappearance, it stands in such glaring contrast to the lack of attention that as a society we give to the hundreds of faces — oftentimes black or brown — that will never be seen again.

When I was first starting in journalism, I was assigned to write a profile of a blonde teenager who was shot and killed in a case of mistaken identity. It irked me some that we weren’t giving the same attention to a young Latino boy who was shot and killed the same weekend.

My editor, to his credit, said go for it. So I set off to write a piece about the parallels and differences between the two cases, only to jettison the idea when I learned the boy’s family spoke Spanish and didn’t want to deal with a reporter.

As a result, one story got told and the other didn’t. It didn’t make either more or less heartbreaking.

It points to, I believe, part of the problem — that newsrooms, especially at the time, were overwhelmingly white and that gets reflected in the coverage. With greater diversity comes greater perspectives, which ultimately leads to newsrooms that tell different — and perhaps greater — stories. This is part of the reason The Tribune, and outlets around the country, are making efforts to include other voices.

There’s also a supply-and-demand aspect to it. News outlets want to give customers what they want, and high-profile crime sells. If you don’t believe me look at the proliferation of murder podcasts, which are now America’s second-leading industry — a slight exaggeration, but not by much.

And Petito’s story was custom-made to occupy the spotlight — a young couple on an extended road trip, documenting the journey on social media.

The larger point, though, is that, as a society, we put our time and resources into the things we value.

That’s true of everything, including the people we value and the people we don’t. It’s true of people who are with us and those that disappear. And it’s true of the way we in the media cover their stories, the way we consume information and the way government and law enforcement interact with them.

As has been pointed out elsewhere in the past week, in Wyoming, where Petito’s body was found, more than 400 indigenous women and girls were reported missing in the last decade, according to a report by Wyoming’s commission on missing indigenous women.

Only 18% of those indigenous female homicide victims ever get newspaper coverage, compared to more than half of all white homicide victims.

“My heart goes out to [Petito] and her family. Nobody deserves to experience what happened to her,” said Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who sponsored legislation to create a commission on missing indigenous women in Utah. “But I think this goes back to a larger issue on value and who we value, just the media coverage and how we talk about cases, and a lot of times we don’t even realize we have these biases. It’s just so embedded in our institutions.”

Romero said the Utah commission, still in its early stages, is exploring issues arising from overlapping jurisdictions between state, federal and tribal law enforcement, and hoping to get funding for a study on where the state can improve its handling of the cases.

An important function, though, is listening. “A lot of [families] just want to be heard, because for so long they just weren’t believed after their loved ones disappeared,” Romero said, “or it wasn’t ruled a homicide when they knew it was.”

We do need more resources dedicated to those who historically have been overlooked and neglected, and to help women who, as it appears was the case with Petito, find themselves in abusive situations.

And, at a minimum, when the next made-for-podcast story of a missing young white woman dominates the headlines, we should program ourselves to remember some of those who have disappeared and our culture simply didn’t value.