opinion

Her name was Gabby Petito. And she’s not your true crime entertainment.

Right now, Gabby Petito's parents are grieving the unthinkable. 

On Sunday they were informed that a body matching their daughter's description was found in the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, just shy of a month since they last spoke to her.

She was 22. She loved art and yoga. She'd set off in July on an exciting adventure across America in a Ford Transit van she and her fiance Brian Laundrie had transformed into a mobile home. 

Read more: Three weeks ago Brian returned home without his fiance Gabby. A body has just been found.

We already live in a world that's true crime obsessed. Endless podcasts, movies, TV shows and articles are written about it, exploring both fiction and non-fiction cases.

But the way Gabby's disappearance has been co-opted by her generation on TikTok is a new breed of true crime obsession.

Millions of people have been 'investigating' the case in real-time, amassing hundreds of millions of views and even more comments debating the contents of their latest 'clues.'

At the time of writing the Gabby Petito hashtag on the social media behemoth stands at 355 million views with the top videos titled "Gabby Petito last text message sent" and "Gabby Petito update."

These content creators aren't journalists, or detectives. They're 'concerned' citizens who have been picking apart Gabby's social media accounts and movements, trying to work out if there are hidden meanings and messages the police have missed.

TikTok is blowing up with 'theories' and 'investigations' and debate about certain social images and police details. Image: TikTok.

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Their intent may be to educate and get the word out about Gabby's disappearance. But the result is that they're turning a crime, a crime that's still unfolding, into voyeuristic entertainment.

Don't get me wrong. The media can be guilty of this too. In particular with Gabby, her story has been covered far and wide; she is beautiful, white, blond and young. It means that she is afforded a place on homepages based on those facts alone. There's even a term for it; 'Missing White Women Syndrome.' 

It was coined by Gwen Ifill, an American journalist, and studied by sociologists. It refers to the veracity of which missing white women are disproportionately highlighted in news stories compared to missing people of colour. 

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Another key reason is because the circumstances are strange and mysterious. Brian returned home from their cross-country trip alone with their van on September 1, a week after Gabby's family last made contact with her. He refused to talk to police and then went missing himself, with footage this week showing the couple being pulled over by police a few weeks prior over a domestic incident. 

It's a compelling true crime story with all the right twists and turns. And publicity can help solve crimes.

But the way it's being obsessed over, picked apart and followed seems to forget that at the core of this tale, there is a family sitting at home in their living room, devastated.

Reporting the news is one thing, creating viral 'clue hunting' videos is another. Especially when the millions of commenters are also implicating Brian in a crime he has not been arrested or even accused of yet beyond being named a 'person of interest' by police.

As media, we are held to a set of ethical and legal standards in the way we report these stories. TikTok creators who usually post updates on their family and lives, but who have decided to turn their attention to an ongoing police investigation, are not. 

This is not true-crime like you see in your favourite TV show. This is not a 'TikTok investigation'. This is a missing persons' case that's officially, as of the weekend, turned into a real crime investigation.

Watch: On Sunday (Monday morning AEST), police confirmed the worst. Post continues after video.


Video via CBS.

Comments like 'social media is piecing this together faster than police' and 'I never thought TikTok would have me into something so deep' aren't helpful. They're hurtful. If these individuals have tips, great! Send them to the police, don't create viral videos for views. 

Stop turning a family's worst nightmare into a true-crime 'whodunnit' obsession before they've even had the chance to process what's happened themselves.

Let the police do their job. Report facts. Not 'theories' investigated via Google and social media.

Her name was Gabby Petito. She is not your entertainment.

Feature image: Instagram @gabspetito.