Bogus abductions like the case that unraveled in Madison, Wis., last week, scare Fargo Police Chief Chris Magnus. The Minneapolis Star Tribune says he sees “the start of a really dangerous situation” in between the legitimate outrage sparked by Dru Sjodin’s abduction in Grand Forks, N.D., last November and the attention on Audrey Seiler’s ultimately fake kidnapping report.
A few weeks after Sjodin was snatched, a Fargo woman reported being abducted at gunpoint and raped. It turned out that she fabricated the story to cover up an affair amid mental health problems. As law enforcement pours its resources into such cases, attention is diverted from other serious work. Citizens turn out to search fields and marshes. News media cover the story around the clock. Authorities are forced to sort out the facts on the fly, unable to ignore a possible atrocity even when it seems suspicious.
Magnus said cases like Seiler’s — the University of Wisconsin sophomore from Rockford, Minn., who appears to have staged her disappearance March 27 — won’t change law enforcement’s response. Brent Turvey, a forensic scientist, criminal profiler, and author in Alaska, said criminologists seldom study false reports. He hopes that changes. “The actual number of false reports is staggering, and it’s a huge problem,” he said. The media play a large role in such cases as competitive live coverage and instant Internet updates have become the norm. “They define the case right away: ‘Innocent girl miraculously survives,’ and then when it winds up a fabrication,” Turvey said, “they vilify her and tear her down in the backlash while all the time pressuring the police to get it right quicker than they normally would be expected to.”
The Wisconsin State Journal explored why television made so much of the case. “Kidnappings are made for 24 hour news,” says Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based journalism school. McBride thinks the coverage of Seiler’s “abduction” and similar disappearances is unwarranted. “If you look at this on a national scale, the further you are geographically from the incident, the less you have an argument that this has any news value,” she says. “I don’t need to know about this in Florida. It doesn’t involve my local police agencies.”
Appealing to targeted viewers in the morning — women ages 25 to 54 — comes into play, says USA Today. “These kind of stories hit home with our viewers,” says CBS Early Show chief Michael Bass. Some critics hope the Seiler hoax will prompt producers to rethink the prominence they give such stories. “It’s about time the morning shows got caught for making journalistic misjudgments,” says network news analyst Andrew Tyndall. About 3,500 women ages 22 to 29 were reported missing in 2001 out of more than 428,000 cases reported in the first half of that year. Tyndall says morning shows “what is often fundamentally a local story and [make] it out to be national in scope simply because it can tug at the heartstrings.” He says the apparent victims “have to be women and they have to be pretty.”
Good Morning America boss Shelley Ross disagrees. Ever since 9/11/01, she says, “all Americans have become citizen deputies. We care about our neighbors more.” If a show like hers can help focus people’s eyes on someone who is missing — especially in the critical first 48 hours — all the better.