TOPICS > Nation

Still Missing

July 12, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Why do the media cover some missing persons cases and not others? Media correspondent Terence Smith looks into that question.

CORRESPONDENT: And despite the break, Elizabeth Smart’s family still doesn’t know where she is or if she is even alive.

TERENCE SMITH: Elizabeth Smart, a Salt Lake City teenager, was abducted at gunpoint June 5. Her disappearance has led to an intense, nationwide search, and equally intense, national media attention.

CORRESPONDENT: Another bizarre day in the kidnapping case of Elizabeth Smart.

TERENCE SMITH: Police briefings are carried live on cable, and updates on the search appear hourly, regardless of the progress.

CORRESPONDENT: Today is no different than yesterday as it pertains to their search for 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart.

TERENCE SMITH: Network morning news programs have led their broadcasts with the story.

CORRESPONDENT: A strange case gets even stranger.

CORRESPONDENT: This is the smart kidnapping case in Utah.

DAN RATHER: There is a development tonight in the case of Elizabeth Smart.

TERENCE SMITH: And, according to ADT Media Research, the three network evening news programs have given the story 29 minutes, more than one entire broadcast. Advocates for missing persons say the coverage is a blessing, but one bestowed on few cases.

The disappearance of Alexis Patterson, a young African American girl in Milwaukee has prompted only limited national coverage, often in conjunction with the Smart case. The tandem coverage has raised questions about whether race and affluence determine which missing persons are covered… …and which simply disappear.

TERENCE SMITH: Joining me to discuss the coverage of missing persons cases are Greta Van Susteren, host of “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren” on the Fox News Channel and Keith Woods, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists where he leads seminars on race relations. Welcome to you both. Greta, on any given day in the United States, I’m told there are about 2,000 missing children. Why has this case gotten so much more coverage than the others?

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN: I think there’s one aspect of sort of a contagious atmosphere because everybody is telling the story. Everybody else is going to tell the story. And, look, it is an intrigue, it’s a mystery. How can you put your child to bed and expect that you are going to see that child in the morning and someone comes in and snatches that child away? So I think it also sort of affects us emotionally. But I think that there’s the whodunit nature of it as well as the fact that everybody is talking about it. We get fascinated by it.

TERENCE SMITH: Keith Woods, what do you think explains the non-stop wall-to-wall coverage of this case versus others?

KEITH WOODS: Well, I think you can also add the fact that it’s a wealthy family, that this is not supposed to happen in neighborhoods like that; that in a lot of ways the people who are doing the coverage can relate to that family in ways that they might not be able to relate to the family of Alexis Patterson.

TERENCE SMITH: In the sense Keith Woods that it was, as Greta said, an abduction from the house?

KEITH WOODS: Well, in the sense that it was a child who looked and whose family looked a lot like the people who are telling the stories in the news.

TERENCE SMITH: Greta Van Susteren, Keith mentioned both race and affluence there. Are those factors in your opinion in explaining the extent of the coverage?

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN: I think in part. I think that that’s a really good criticism historically about the media. I don’t know if it is a good argument in terms of timing. For instance, we just spent an enormous amount of time dealing with Arelia Wilson, a young African American child who has vanished in the state of Florida. So right now we have spent a considerable amount of attention on that story. But historically I think that’s true.

Look at the Jean Benet Ramsey case, a lot of attention put on that, and probably very few people have ever heard of Girl “X,” who about a week later, in a project in Chicago, was brutally tortured to the point where she remains brain damaged today. So I think historically that’s true but right now in this month we have spent a lot of time on Amelia Wilson so it may not be the case in June and July of 2002.

TERENCE SMITH: Keith Woods, you said in your first answer that Elizabeth Smart looks like the people responsible for the coverage. What do you mean?

KEITH WOODS: First, I want to say that I don’t think that’s the entire explanation for the disparate coverage in the two stories. But I do think that the fact that how we can relate as journalists to the people we’re covering plays a big part. And so I mean that almost literally, certainly racially, but also they look like us in that they are middle class people, upper middle class people, that they put their children to bed at night in homes that seem to look like ours in a lot of ways in that respect, the media is drawn to it. But I think it is much more than that.

I would add that the Arelia Wilson case is a story that’s being told about massive failure of systems, not the story about a missing child. And if you watch the way the story is being told, it is an investigation into the foster care system; it is not an investigation trying to find a child for the most part.


GRETA VAN SUSTEREN: I just want to add one thing and this may be very callous of me towards sort of the field of journalism and in particular electronic journalism, but I’m always sort of curious if some in some ways some of these stories are not driven by the fact that the networks have limited resources and all the microwave trucks happen to be in one particular area so it is very easy right now to cover a story in Salt Lake City because all the microwave trucks are there. It is much harder, for instance, if a child is discovered missing right now tonight in North Carolina. So it’s a little bit easier. But in defense of the media, and you know you can criticize the media– maybe I can look at it as half full, is that we have now put the spotlight on missing children. People are stunned at the number of missing children some this country. So I can put a half empty-half, full spin on this either way.

TERENCE SMITH: I wonder also Keith Woods, how much difference it makes that there is video of Elizabeth Smart? There’s not much video of Alexis Patterson, for example, in Milwaukee.

KEITH WOODS: I think that you can add a lot of different factors. You’ve got a community response in Salt Lake that’s far different from the response in Milwaukee that allows the media to have excuses, essentially– I shouldn’t say excuses. They certainly have news pegs they can base their coverage on in Salt Lake that they don’t necessarily have in Milwaukee.

The fact of the matter is that if you took ten missing children cases, and you took five of them that happened to happen in poor communities and five that happened to happen in affluent communities, the fact of the matter is that the affluent communities would have those resources, would have those pegs would have those stories developing every day that aren’t happening in the Milwaukee community. And so if the media is guided purely by the reactive kind of stance that we seem to be seeing here, then it won’t have that kind of thing to react to. And the next seven-year-old African American poor child is going to get the same coverage as Alexis.

TERENCE SMITH: Greta, is affluence part of it?

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN: I think in part but I also think it is also the unusual nature of it. People Magazine did a huge story on the two missing girls in Oregon that were friends. I think they were in third and fourth grade and they disappeared on their way to the bus about six weeks apart. So I think it is also the peculiar nature. How can this happen in our neighborhood? How could two young girls who are friends vanish into thin air just six weeks apart? It is the unusual nature but it is also the ability of the family to put this in the public domain.

A poor family in Milwaukee is probably not going to have as much access to the media as a family who can even afford to go to Kinkos and put out posters and put them on every single pole. So there is somewhat of that. It does disturb all of us in the media. We would love to cover all these stories because it is unthinkable that a child could disappear.

TERENCE SMITH: How much difference does it make — I want to ask you both Keith Woods you first — when the family has the resources and inclination to go out and hire public relations people, make themselves available to the media in the Elizabeth Smart case, actually buy ads in newspapers, which are very expensive. How much difference?

KEITH WOODS: I think it makes a huge difference but again I want to say that that only explains the way the things happen. It doesn’t excuse it, nor does it let the media off the hook for being able to find its own passion, its own drive, its own reason for doing the stories that might exist without any of that kind of PR push from the family.

TERENCE SMITH: Greta, final comment from you on that point and what you expect as this story goes on.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN: Well, I don’t know if I think the PR helps. I don’t think the Smarts need it because we are so consumed with it. I think the family in Milwaukee could use it more than the Smarts. Now my final comment is: As we look at all these shows and try to decide what show to put on the network,, the one thing I’m grateful for is that in this day and age — after 30 years –we have three cable news networks that go 24 hours a day. Think of the old days when it was only 22 minutes a night on network news so maybe now more missing kids can get on the TV.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Greta Van Susteren, Keith Woods, thank you both very much.