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National Media Coverage Of Gabby Petito Case Raises Questions About Attention For Missing People Of Color

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- The ongoing investigation into the death of Gabby Petito hits close to home for families still missing loved ones. National media coverage and tips were a huge help, and some are now asking why the same kind of attention is not being given to missing people of color.

As WCBS-TV's Lisa Rozner reports, the search for Petito was fueled by social media sleuths captivated by her and fiancé Brian Laundrie's cross-country travel posts on Instagram and YouTube.

In her hometown of Blue Point, Long Island, supporters believe it pushed the investigation forward. "Thank God Gabby had a 50,000 platform community that she contributed to because that's part of why this is so national," said Carol Seitz, president of the Blue Point Chamber of Commerce.

It's the kind of national coverage that the father of 24-year-old David Robinson hopes for. He was last seen leaving his job in Buckeye, Arizona, in June. His vehicle was found crashed in a desert. "Emailing, texting, emailing, reaching out to whoever," father Daniel Robinson said.

Twenty-five-year-old Illinois grad student Jelani Day was reported missing in August, last seen on surveillance video entering a retail store.

Neither were covered in national headlines.

"Story selection in any newsroom is not an exact science," said Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. "What images and video and photography and witnesses are available. It's a whole mix of those things, but the decision-making happens also in a context of who's making those decisions, and if that newsroom doesn't represent the community it's covering, then those decisions are going to look different."

"Often these folks are white, they're upper to middle class. So there's a feeling of connection that they may not even be aware of because how we align across certain fault lines of race and class and gender and the white influence, how we see events. Also cable news has an outsized impact on the sort of larger discourse. And so when this is covered, like CNN and other places, then other news organizations pick it up and then it goes wide," said Martin G. Reynolds, executive director of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. "This isn't to say that these journalists are bad folks or that this isn't a worthy story ... What I think is really essential is the understanding of the choices that we make as journalists are an articulation of value."

The Black and Missing Foundation says 40% of missing adults are people of color.

"My role is to ensure that our missing are household names as well," foundation co-founder Natalie Wilson said. "Media coverage is so important because one, it alerts the community that someone is missing and it can greater the chance of a recovery, but it also adds pressure to law enforcement."

In the state of Wyoming, where Petito's body was found, the organization Not Our Native Daughters says more than 700 indigenous people went missing over the last decade. "Hopefully we're in the moment now where we're able to recognize that there is disparities when it comes to a white person missing versus a Native American, or even an African American or Hispanic," organization director Lynnette Grey Bull said.

Columbia University journalism professor June Cross recalls students having trouble getting the green light on a 2016 documentary about missing afro-Latino women in the Bronx. "It was impossible to get coverage. It was impossible to get the police to even think about investigating these cases," she said.

"We produced a report called 'Normalizing Injustice' ... and actually talked to writers and producers, they felt like people would turn off the TV if the victim was a black woman," said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change.

Robinson says it's a wake-up call for all to evaluate their own biases, especially members of the media, which, in the end, can impact voters' decisions about what is needed in communities to keep everyone safe.

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