Why The Gabby Petito Story Grabs Our Attention

Posted September 22, 2021
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Even here, in the UK, The BBC is covering the Gabby Petito story.

This is in itself someting of a mystery.  Why would The BBC cover the story of a 22-year old woman who first disappeared and then turns up dead in the United States? What's the connection to the UK?

Of course, there isn't one.

The BBC is covering Gabby Petito becaues everyone else is. The Internet is alive with the story, as is every TV news channel in America.

But why?

As The New York Times reported this morning:

Hundreds of thousands of people are reported missing in the United States every year. But it’s rare for a single case to capture the public’s attention — and galvanize individuals to take action — as the disappearance of Gabrielle Petito has.

By now, the story is well known to everyone. An attractive, white (this seems to be significant) 22-year old woman is on a cross country road trip with her boyfriend/fiance when she mysteriously vanishes.

He reappears at his parents' house without her.  Then he too vanishes.

Later, her body is found. He is not. He is still at large... somewhere.

Joy Reid of MSNBC ascribed this to the institutional racism of the media:

“Why not the same media attention when people of color go missing?” she asked, providing the answer herself and then introducing two guests to amplify it.

“Well, the answer actually has a name — ‘missing White woman syndrome,’” she said, crediting the phrase to PBS journalist Gwen Ifill’s noting “the media and public fascination with missing White women.”

Well, maybe.

But I think there is something else happening here as well.

I would call it The Netflix Syndrome.

The story has all the makings of a Netflix series. In fact, I am sure it will be one a year from now or so.

It is playing out not as a news story, which it clearly is, but rather as a drama, episode by episode. It has all the characteristics of a Netflix drama - and a coherent arc of story. Now it has turned into a murder mystery. 

All true.

Yet at the same time, this is also a news story. But a news story that really rates.

There's a lesson in here.  

Most people, when they come home at night, turn on Netflix (or Hulu or Apple TV or whatever). It captures their imagination. It holds an audience.  No one binge watches the news.

That's not because of the content.  Clearly, Gabby Petito is a news story first, but it is being packaged as a Netflix series - in real-time.

If you are in the news business and you want to capture and hold your audience today you aren't going to do it by yelling BREAKING NEWS every thirty seconds.  

And you aren't going to do it with a bunch of stand-ups, man-on-the-street interviews, or b-roll.

You will do it by producing news stories that look and feel like Netflix.
This is what the people want.

And the advantage of News + Netflix is that you don't have to font at the end BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

It is. 


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