This will be brief for how important I think it is, but I wanted to take a minute away from college football and the Ryder Cup to talk about Gabby Petito and victims of violent crime everywhere. Bear with me for just a few minutes and I promise I’ll have you back in front of the TV, beer in hand, in no time.
I’m not going to get into a whole bunch of background facts here because one Google search of “Gabby Petito” will get you more than I could possibly provide for you. But the long and short of it is this: Gabby Petito and her boyfriend Brian Laundrie were on some sort of road trip in a converted van. They went to some national parks and documented their travels on social media. A few weeks ago an odd text was sent from Gabby’s phone to Gabby’s mom, and that’s the last anyone heard of her. Gabby’s body was found in Grand Teton National Park earlier this week, a medical examiner declared her cause of death to be homicide, and local, state, and federal law enforcement authorities are trying to track down Brian Laundrie, who returned to his parents’ house in Florida after Gabby’s last text but before the story caught any news traction.* At least two witnesses have come forward saying that they witnesses Gabby and Brian arguing in the days prior to that last text. There, you now have enough information to complete the article. For more click here.
*I mention this below, too, but just in case I’ll mention it here: I’m writing this on Thursday, 9/22, and it’s entirely possible they’ll find Brian between now and when you’re reading this on Saturday and I might not have time to make the correction, so if they’ve found Brian by the time you’re reading this, please be forgiving and know that as of this writing he was still at large.
Something to Talk About
Gabby Petito’s death is a tragedy no matter how it happened. If she was murdered by Brian or by someone else, or if she tripped and fell, or if she died of some undiagnosed congenital thing, or if a piece of hardware from an airplane fell 30,000 feet and hit her, or however else she might have died, it is a tragedy. She was 22 years old, and most deaths at 22 years old are tragic.
Despite the prima facie tragedy of the whole thing, something I have seen a lot of on Facebook, Twitter, and the various “news” channels is that Gabby’s death is only news because she was young and white. This got me thinking about tragedy and race and media and all sorts of amoebic, ethereal concepts that are often oversimplified by Internet trolls and other assorted randos. So let’s talk this out for just a bit, shall we?
Is that true? That’s the first question we need to think about. Is it true that Gabby’s youth and whiteness are the cause of the newsworthiness? I don’t have a concrete reason for believing that it is true, but I actually do believe it is true to some extent. To what extent is it true? No idea. None. How many non-white, non-youthful people go missing every year in the United States? The New York Post, using statistics gathered from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (“NamUs”), says that 600,000 people go missing every year in the United States, but that around 90% of them are recovered every year, alive or dead. Six hundred thousand. That’s a lot of people. But if the figure is to be believe, around 540,000 of those people are found in some capacity and can therefore get some semblance of closure. Of course, that means 60,000 are left with an obnoxious question mark in the various annals of the day.
But what about murders? How many murders are there in the United States every year? In 2019, there were approximately 16,425, according to the FBI. Interestingly, almost half (48.7%) of those were reported in the South, which the FBI defines as Texas (under protest from this Texan; Texas is Texas and we don’t like being lumped in with those other guys), Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Washington, D.C., North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. That is the most states and territories covered in any one region, and there are quite a few large population centers in there (Dallas, Houston, San Antonio are all in the top ten largest US cities, plus Atlanta, Memphis, Miami, Baltimore, and New Orleans all have notoriously high crime rates).
The age, race, and sex charts at the FBI are out of 13,927 homicides in 2019, slightly less than the estimate, so the following figures are based on that 13,927 number. Of those 13,927 homicides, 2,859 (approx. 20%) victims were 22 or younger, and 5,787 (41.5%) were white. By contrast, 7,484 (approx. 54%) were Black. Of those 13,927 homicides, 2,991 (21.5%) were female. So taking all of those numbers we can safely say that 22-year-old women made up 584 of the homicide victims in 2019, which is 4.2%. Unfortunately the charts don’t allow me to extrapolate how many of those 584 were white, but we can safely assume that it was less than all of them.
What are you talking about, Ben? Another great question that needs to be answered. What I’m talking about is data. That is all raw data. The people I have seen talking about the injustice of Gabby Petito being covered while other missing and/or murdered people don’t get the news coverage lacks data. Again, I believe those sentiments, but there has to be a line somewhere, right?
I mean, 13,927 is a lot of murders. That’s about 38 a day in the United States, and if every national news outlet did even thirty seconds on each victim, that’s 19 minutes of airtime per program per day, and that adds up quick. So I think it’s reasonable to say that some homicides are not going to be newsworthy at a national level. I’m not saying they aren’t newsworthy. I’m saying they don’t need expansive coverage on national programming.
Is there other data? Probably. One thing I’ve seen a lot is about the many Native Americans, mainly Native American women, who go missing in rural parts of the West without it ever being on the news. I don’t have any data to back that up, and frankly the people posting that stuff on Facebook can’t have great data because I’ve seen figures ranging from 100 to 10,000 annually. But there’s a lot at play there. For one thing, Native lands (i.e. reservations) don’t always have the same law enforcement structure and reporting guidelines. And sure, maybe the news should be more diligent in collecting information, but I think it’s also at least a little on Native law enforcement to get the numbers to people who can broadcast that information, right?
Plus, what about the other sexes and races besides people of color? Of those 13,927 homicides we talked about above, 10,908 victims were male. That’s 78.3%. Men make up 48.9% of the population in the United States (according to statista.com), yet men make up 78.3% of the homicide victims. But that’s okay because men also make up 88% of known murderers in that same time frame. So men are more likely to be murdered and more likely to murder, if you want to try and make a causative statement there. That means if two men were to take the same road trip together that Gabby and Brian did, statistically one of those men would be more likely to get killed by the other one than Gabby was likely to have been killed by Brian (if Brian even killed her (again, I’m writing this on Thursday and if there’s a development I might not be able to update this in time so please don’t hold it against me if I’m a day behind or so.))
But that’s not really the point of all of this. If you want more of those kinds of statistics there are all sorts of other ways to get them.
What is the point, then, Ben? Ah, the best question so far! The point is that there’s a lot we don’t know, there’s a lot we want to believe, and there’s some stuff that we can safely assume. What don’t we know? Well for one thing, we don’t know much about what happened with Gabby Petito. We also don’t know exactly how many people go missing every year, exactly how many Native Americans go missing, exactly how many women are murdered by their boyfriends each year, or exactly what it is that makes some murders more compelling than others. And what can we assume? Two major things: 1) That the hypothesis that Gabby got more national attention because she was young and white is probably correct; and 2) Americans love murder mysteries.
There’s something very base and Roman about it, isn’t there? Romans would gather in the Flavian Amphitheater to watch gladiators battle one another, sometimes to the death. They would also watch men battle animals, public executions, and even just straight up death brawls. We don’t do that anymore, really. Sure, we watch MMA and boxing, but we never expect to actually watch someone die as a form of entertainment. But we still have a little bit of that desire, don’t we? We’re actually a little creepy, aren’t we? That’s why podcasts like Sword and Scale and My Favorite Murder, and shows like Unsolved Mysteries and The First 48 are so incredibly popular. There’s still the violence and the devolved bloodlust, but we can revel in it from a factual, scientific point of view instead of just cheering when someone loses a limp or their head.
The point? I know, you’re getting impatient, and I don’t blame you. The point is that death is entertaining and sad at the same time. Some deaths are more compelling than others. If two bad people (criminals of some sort) shoot at each other and die, people aren’t going to care as much because the thinking is they were already in a bad situation by their own volition. But a young girl with her whole life ahead of her disappearing, being found in a National Park, and a huge manhunt for her boyfriend? Come on, man. That’s Ratings 101. There are drama shows that just show that kind of thing. That’s how much of a draw that is. The actual death and destruction aren’t enough. We need manufactured sadness to satiate our thirst for the darkest facets of human existence.
Which actually does bring me back to my point. Gabby Petito’s disappearances and death is a tragedy. It’s not a tragedy because she’s white or female or 22. It’s a tragedy because she was a young woman who it appears was not into any bad business and likely had at least 60 or so years left on Earth had her time not been cut short.
But that’s also true of anyone else in those same circumstances. If a seemingly good person dies young, it’s a tragedy. And yes, it appears that young, white women get more coverage when that kind of thing happens to them, and yes, that’s not fair. But the answer to levelling the playing field involves things like news coverage and crime statistics being more available. It doesn’t come from downplaying Gabby’s tragedy or using it as a platform from which you can rail against the racial injustice of television ratings. Just because there are many unreported sadnesses out there doesn’t make the reported ones less sad.
Do you have a call to action? Ehhh…not really. But here’s what I will say. There’s a lot of information out there about this kind of thing. I spent 15 minutes on the FBI’s website and ended up with this article. I would also take a guess that most tragic deaths like those of young people who are taken too young probably did get news coverage in their home region. If you’re that curious, go look for it and try and bring some attention to it yourself. That’s basically what Sword and Scale is. I mean, that’s just one dude deep diving into crimes that probably didn’t get much national attention, and he’s been successful.
But really my message here is that you can be upset that homicide victims who are people of color are underrepresented in the national news AND believe that what happened to Gabby Petito is a tragedy. It’s tragic that Gabby Petito died, and it’s tragic that there are many other people out there with similar stories The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, you can actually be upset at several things simultaneously. Trust me, at any given moment I’m upset about at least 15–20 things, and they almost never contradict one another. But the way to bring the underrepresented up isn’t necessarily to bring the overrepresented down, per se. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats, right? I know that’s normally an economics idea, but I think it works here, too.
Can I go back to football now? Sure. I’m not your mom, do whatever you want.