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Finding "Katrina's Missing"

Here's an update to yesterday's entry on the "Katrina's Missing" segment that has temporarily been running in place of the "Fallen Heroes" segment on the "Evening News" and is also running on all CBS News broadcasts. But mea culpas first: we were reminded that we forgot to mention that a "Fallen Heroes" interactive feature, which has been continuously updated with pictures and backgrounds of service members who have died, can be accessed at CBSNews.com. To our mothership, we apologize.

We spoke with Sandy Genelius, vice president of communications for CBS News, to get a better idea of how the series came about. It may sound a little like cheerleading, but it does turn out to be an interesting story.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward received a letter from Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), that was sent to all the networks, says Genelius, suggesting that they find ways to help reunite those family members who were separated during the hurricane, since many of those displaced do not have access to the Internet, but do have access to television.

Heyward passed the letter on to Genelius, who, along with "Evening News" publicist Donna Dees, decided that the request seemed "pretty reasonable. You really do stop and think about the parents who, two weeks after the hurricane, don't know where their kids are," said Genelius.

Heyward announced and endorsed the idea during an 11 a.m. staff meeting that included executive producers from each broadcast, and suggested that staffers see what was possible. Later that day, all the broadcasts agreed to include a segment that would feature a photo and description of missing children and the telephone number of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, with whom the project is a joint effort.

"Less than 24 hours later, by 7 a.m. Saturday [Sept. 10] for the Early Show, there were a whole pack of these things running," said Genelius. "This little idea became a series that runs on every broadcast."

Those involved with production of "Katrina's Missing" are fitting it in with their other responsibilities, and finding it a welcome addition, according to Dan Dubno, a producer who is coordinating the project.

"Every broadcast has bent over backwards" to help with the project, said Dubno.

Dubno and his team are working closely with the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Every day we are in constant contact with people at the Center, receiving editorial info about the missing -- who's recovered, discussing which broadcasts air what and when, keeping a master list of everything that's been done," said Dubno. "Then we take the photos and create unique graphics for each broadcast -- each broadcast decides how many they want to include."

In addition to checking the material himself throughout the day, to make sure that it is correct and the children included have not already been found, Dubno said that each broadcast is responsible for calling the Center shortly before airtime to make sure that the children to be included have not yet been found.

"We're finding kids faster than we can create graphics to replace them," said Dubno.

"It's hard to be incredibly precise about it, because we don't know if it's a direct result of us airing the pictures, but there is an incredible correlation between when we broadcast the information and when the kids are found," said Dubno. "Many have been missing for weeks, then found soon after we air their pictures." Dubno said that of the 150 names they have received from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, only about 40 remain missing.

It is a project that has affected Dubno profoundly. "I've been doing television for 27 years," said Dubno, "I've done all kind of programs ... and this is one of the first times I can remember that something we did ... actually meant something life-changing for someone at the other end of the tube."

"For a television news producer, there is nothing better than instant gratification," he said, chuckling. "Around here, it's been our secret little joy," he added. Asked why it was a secret: "Because we're supposed to be dispassionate. We're supposed to just be reporting facts, and telling people 'that's the way it is.' We are not used to the process of actually intervening in the news story. In this case, we are unquestionably intervening, in that we are reuniting families. We are involved in the story, but without any embarrassment about it."

The "Katrina's Missing" segment, a unique effort in broadcast journalism, is one that has been taken on by other networks as well. CNN launched a similar initiative this past weekend.