Why are only some missing persons cases newsworthy?


April 16, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

For the past two days, reporters for newspapers, network morning shows and cable news channels have recounted repeatedly how 5-year-old Ruby Bustamante survived for 10 days on a diet of Gatorade and uncooked noodles in a California ravine near the crumpled car that contained her dead mother's body.

It is a bittersweet end to a painful story that was new to most of America. And it is a tale that raises questions about which missing persons warrant national attention.

That Ruby and her mother's disappearance would fail to make national news would not seem surprising - after all, hundreds of thousands of children and adults are reported missing every year in the United States. Yet there is a seemingly unquenchable thirst of television news executives for stories about missing people - almost invariably young, white, female and attractive.

Coverage of Audrey Seiler, a missing University of Wisconsin student, seemed to be everywhere last month - even before police concluded that she had faked her own kidnapping. Similar attention was given to Dru Sjodin, the University of North Dakota student who went missing last November, and Carlie Brucia, the young Florida girl who was abducted and killed in February. Earlier stories that swamped the airwaves and front pages focused on Elizabeth Smart, who returned alive, and Chandra Levy and Laci Peterson, who did not.

All appear to fit the pattern.

"It's not as if there's a cabal of cable news guys sitting around and anointing them," said Mark Effron, vice president for live news programming at MSNBC. News directors at local network affiliates typically are the first to decide that a missing person report constitutes news. Effron said that cable channels then pick up on the most intriguing stories and turn them into national dramas.

From the outset, the relatives of Ruby who lived with her mother in Indio, about 120 miles southeast of Los Angeles, desperately sought news coverage as well as passed out fliers and photographs. The mother and daughter were entered into a registry of missing people on April 5, said the Indio, Calif., Police.

"The [family] wanted help from the media in getting out the story," said Tony Ballew, news director for KESQ, the ABC affiliate in nearby Palm Springs, Calif. Ballew assigned a reporter to cover the story because, he said, "the police thought that it was something worth pursuing."

But that was about it. The Desert Sun, the primary daily newspaper for Palm Springs, did not write about Ruby until her mother's car was spotted Tuesday morning by a state highway contractor repairing a road barrier above the ravine. The paper didn't pick up on the story, said Rick Green, the Desert Sun's managing editor, because local police didn't emphasize the case.

Ruby's relatives were angry that police did not make a more concerted effort to find the Bustamantes. Indio Police Cmdr. Mark Miller said his officers started their search within city limits because family members were not able to offer specific suggestions where they should look. Ten days passed before the Bustamantes were found about 60 miles west of the small city where they lived.

Compare the treatment of Ruby's disappearance with that of Seiler, the University of Wisconsin undergraduate: The local stations covered her disappearance the same day it occurred.

The Seiler story was one that the media had become accustomed to telling. Like Brucia and Sjodin, Seiler was young and camera-friendly. Perhaps more importantly, those who cared about her were media savvy and could win access to the media.

University officials issued frequent statements of support. Teachers from her hometown in Minnesota gave interviews about her. Seiler's campus and home communities had rallied visibly around her. "She's a good student, everybody loved her," said Jim Dick, news director for WMTV, the NBC affiliate in Madison. "It's kind of like an assault on American values. Here's a kid who's doing everything right."

Within 48 hours, national network correspondents descended on Seiler's college town. By day four, according to the Madison, Wisc., Capital Times, there was a full-court press: "About two dozen investigators are on the case, plus dozens of patrol officers from several departments, at least 100 volunteers scouring isolated areas, search-and-rescue dogs and even the FBI."

On the day of Seiler's return, the three cable news networks chose to broadcast live footage of the site where police were expected to hold a press conference about Seiler - over reports of the violence that erupted against Americans in Fallujah, Iraq.

"Philosophically, is [Seiler's disappearance] a national story? Should it be?" asked Dick, formerly a senior producer at NBC News'Today Show. "I don't have the answer for that." Even the police revelation that they believed Seiler had perpetrated a hoax received widespread coverage.

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