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Hoax Won't Stop Kidnap Coverage

Morning news show executives say last week's apparently false story of a missing Wisconsin student won't make them reluctant to cover such cases heavily again.

The attention given to Audrey Seiler's two-day disappearance offered a textbook example — some might say cautionary tale — about what makes the morning shows different than other network newscasts.

Two days after police found the University of Wisconsin-Madison sophomore unhurt in a swamp, they announced that she had faked the disappearance that had attracted wide attention.

"It's not like it wasn't a story," said Michael Bass, executive producer of CBS' "The Early Show." "The fact is, when it turned out to be a hoax, that was a story also."

In their feature and interview segments last week, the ABC, CBS and NBC morning shows spent more than twice as much time on the Seiler case than on any other story — including the gruesome killings of four American contractors in Iraq, according to the Tyndall Report, which monitors news show content.

NBC's "Today" led the way with 29 minutes, and even sent news anchor Ann Curry to Wisconsin to follow the case.

In contrast, Seiler's case was only the 11th most-covered story on the network evening newscasts, mostly because ABC spent four minutes on it, the Tyndall Report said.

NBC's top-rated "Nightly News" gave it a minute. The "CBS Evening News" didn't mention it at all.

Even though the evening and morning shows are much different broadcasts — a 22-minute news summary versus two or three hours of news and entertainment — the difference is striking.

The primary reason is that women are the heaviest viewers of the morning show, and the juiciest target for advertisers.

"Whether you're a daughter, a mother, a sister or a grandmother, these kinds of stories — where a parent is on television speaking out in anguish about their missing child — will appeal to you," Bass said. "It's hard not to relate to them. We certainly feel that these kinds of stories hit home with the audience we're targeting."

Bass' show actually spent less time on it than ABC's "Good Morning America" and about half the time as "Today."

"Is it overplayed? Unquestionably," said Eric Mink, a media critic and columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. They're more human interest stories than newsworthy ones, he said.

Viewers should wonder what is being left out of the broadcasts because of the time devoted to this story, he said. There's also a danger that overplaying these stories can create an unwarranted unease, he said.

"Do people worry unreasonably?" he said. "Am I afraid that my daughter is going to be snatched or disposed of while she is away at school?"

Morning show producers believe the coverage, besides appealing to viewers, also provides a service: By quickly publicizing cases of missing people, it might help lead to their safe return.

The Elizabeth Smart case is the first example they cite in saying how intense publicity can lead to a happy ending.

"After 9-11, I really think our viewers and all American citizens want to be deputized," said Shelley Ross, executive producer of ABC's "Good Morning America." "There is a new vigilance in looking out for your neighbor."

Ross said she would provide a similar level of coverage on a missing person story, "even if you showed me they do nothing for the ratings."

Many of the stories that explode into national consciousness, on both the morning shows and cable news, have some kind of twist. In Seiler's case, it was the surveillance camera video that showed her leaving her apartment house in the middle of the night, Bass said.

A ready supply of family, friends and authorities willing to talk is also fuel for television.

When it became clear the Seiler case wasn't as it initially seemed, the "Today" show quickly switched gears. The show interviewed a woman whose severely depressed daughter attempted suicide a few months after faking an abduction, said Tom Touchet, "Today" executive producer.

"I think this story can be valuable in a much different way than it started out to be," Touchet said.

Ross said she's heard from friends who aren't journalists that they want to know more about Seiler now that it's clear that she's troubled.

All of the morning show producers expressed comfort in their news judgment last week and said they wouldn't do anything different when a similar story comes along.

"I still believe in what we do," Ross said. "We did ask all the questions and we smelled the skepticism from the police. If you look at the transcript, we were peeling back the story along the way. We were not just passively moving forward. We were very journalistic about it."

John Walsh, host of Fox's "America's Most Wanted," said he sent a crew to Wisconsin when police began searching for Seiler. His crew's immediate suspicions caused him to drop the story.

Walsh, who has spent two decades trying to get the media to focus on missing people, said he hopes Seiler's case won't hurt that effort.

"I don't think they'll back off," he said. "I hope they don't. It would be a terrible travesty."

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