24-Hour Media Embrace Tales of the Missing

Stories about missing children, teens and young adults dominate TV news so much these days that some have suggested creating a missing-persons cable channel.

Their names become household words: Natalee Holloway (search), Shasta Groene (search), Jessica Lunsford (search), Sarah Lunde (search). And those are just from this year, following in the well-trod media-frenzy path carved by Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson and Lori Hacking.

This week, 5-year-old Evelyn Miller of Iowa disappeared and then was believed to have been found dead in a river. And last month an 11-year-old Boy Scout named Brennan Hawkins vanished on a camping trip in Utah, but turned up alive days later.

Then there was the case of Jennifer Wilbanks of Georgia, which went from being a missing-persons story to one about a runaway bride. But to many, it was still just as mesmerizing.

The soap-opera-like sagas captivate the public, who keep tuning in day after day to get the latest developments.

“There’s the appeal of the puzzle,” said FOX News media analyst Eric Burns, host of “FOX News Watch.” “People like to try to figure out the ending.”

And just as they are in the book-publishing world, mysteries are a favorite genre in journalism, too.

“For decades, the most popular genre in literature has been the mystery,” Burns said. “Mysteries are simple stories. These are stories you can give your full attention to.”

In addition to their simplicity, which makes them easy to follow, mysteries like the tales of the missing have the ability to distract the reader or viewer, making them all the more enticing, according to Burns.

As for why the press latches onto some missing-persons stories and not others, it helps when the cases have many perplexing layers.

“The media often look for those stories that have twists and turns and a lot of new developments, like Natalee Holloway,” said Erin Bruno, a case manager at the National Center for Missing Adults (search).

Some question whether the media also look for stories about white, middle- and upper-middle class and female victims, since those cases tend to get more publicity.

“Certainly national media have profiled cases of white women, [even though] other ages, races and even men have been missing as well,” Bruno said. “We have to look at why these people are getting coverage.”

Missing-persons cases currently get so much hype that viewers probably think there are more people who vanish today than in the past. But statistics paint a different picture.

The total number of new missing-persons reports filed in the year 2000 ranged from 69,038 to 81,199 between January and June, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (search). In 2005, the number of new reports filed ranged from 63,761 to 77,427, according to the NCIC, showing no significant difference in the past five years.

“It’s not increasing that much, but people are just more aware of it,” said Bryant Harper, founder of Code Amber, the Web’s Amber Alert system for abducted children. “The media is really clued into it. With the emergence of the Amber Alert system, it’s much higher up on the radar than 10 years ago. The issue of missing persons has been put more in front of the public than it was before.”

And with highly publicized cases like those of Shasta Groene, Jessica Lunsford, Sarah Lunde and Jetseta Gage — all of whom authorities believe were abducted by convicted sex offenders — there has been a heightened awareness surrounding kidnappings committed by child molesters and rapists.

“We have seen more coverage, and the focus has been on sex offenders,” said Tina Schwartz, director of communications at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (search). “The perpetrators in some of the most high-profile cases have been sex offenders. People are getting more knowledgeable about sex offender laws.”

The 24-hour cable news channels have played a significant role in getting missing-persons cases such extensive and intense media attention.

“These stories wouldn’t mean nearly as much as they mean with cable because we have so much more time we can give to them,” Burns said. “The Natalee Holloway case could not possibly be what it is without all-news cable.”

Holloway, 18, disappeared on May 30, hours before she was set to join a group of high school classmates for the trip home to Alabama after a high school graduation celebration trip in Aruba. Her mother and other relatives have become a fixture on cable news and on Internet news sites talking about the case.

Nevertheless, as gripping and ratings-friendly as "missing" tales like Holloway's might be, they aren't above being knocked off the day's lineup if something bigger comes along.

Holloway was barely mentioned by TV reporters on Thursday, the day of the terror attacks in London, for instance — even though the investigation into her disappearance had topped headlines the day before and wound up back in the news the day after.

No matter what else is happening in the world, Burns thinks missing-persons sagas are here to stay. He doubts they'll become just another fleeting media trend.

“These stories are relatively new, but that doesn’t make them a fad,” he said. “This new journalism genre that has caught on has so many compelling points in its favor, I don’t think it will go away.”