Law enforcement authorities face a quandary in cases like that of Georgia “runaway bride” Jennifer Wilbanks, says Newsweek. The problem: “Merciless media coverage forces law enforcement to devote copious resources to solve crimes that turn out to be hoaxes.” Last year a Wisconsin student faked her kidnapping, prompting a $97,000 search. She pleaded guilty to obstructing officers and agreed to pay back $9,000. A few months later a runaway bride in Ohio sparked a search involving bloodhounds and helicopters, only to be discovered at a friend’s house several days later. (She was charged with “inducing panic,” but prosecutors dropped the complaint.) In another era, Wilbanks’s case might not have been covered at all and resources might have been deployed more cautiously, says criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University. “A lot of people have criticized her, but of course, we’re the ones who called on the dogs.”
The press devours abduction stories, says criminal-justice professor Victor Kappeler of Eastern Kentucky University, who argues that the trend gained steam after Elizabeth Smart’s 2002 kidnapping in Utah. Once reporters began broadcasting from Duluth, Ga., “People were keeping their children inside and curtailing their activities because they were afraid there was a kidnapper out there,” says Danny Porter, district attorney for Gwinnett County. Elsewhere, authorities are becoming more sophisticated at managing the media. At the Mt. Lebanon, Pa., Police Department, part of Ken Truver’s job as public-information officer is to anticipate which scenarios are likely to entice reporters. “The media’s not going to show up at a two-car crash,” he says. “They are going to show up if there’s any kind of threat at a school.” Law enforcement has also become more adept at tracking the flow of information–or misinformation–circulated by news reports. In a Florida case, the cops continually updated a grid with each new tidbit disseminated by the press.