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Missing kids: Has media coverage been fair?

Alexis Patterson has been missing since May.
Alexis Patterson has been missing since May.  

From David Mattingly

(CNN) -- The disappearance of Elizabeth Smart in June became the story of the summer, with daily continuing coverage by most national news outlets. The case was often referred to as "every parent's nightmare."

Yet weeks before 14-year-old Elizabeth's abduction became the nightmare of the Smart family, the parents of Alexis Patterson already had faced their own nightmare. The 7-year-old Milwaukee girl vanished one morning in May after leaving for school.

The parents of Wesley Dale Morgan also had faced their own nightmare. The 2-year-old boy last seen playing with puppies a year ago in his front yard in Clinton, Louisiana.

Both those cases of missing children received substantially less national coverage than Elizabeth Smart's abduction.

"Everybody knows about Elizabeth Smart and that's not fair. Give ours just as much airtime as you give her everywhere," said LaRon Bourgeois, Alexis' stepfather. "I mean these kids are helpless. What can they do? What can they do?"

Some experts suggest the amount of national media attention devoted to any given case may depend largely on the parents' ability to get the media's interest.

"It has a lot to do with how media savvy they are and how willing they are to put themselves before the media," said Al Cross, president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

But once in front of the media, a family's home life and economic status comes into play as well -- factors that can make it more difficult for a mass audience to relate to the story.

If this is true, then it may have been Elizabeth Smart's abduction in the night from a picture perfect neighborhood and seemingly secure home that made her story so compelling to so many people.

What also made it attractive to many experts is the story's simplicity.

"The simpler the story can be told and the more appealing it is to basic emotions without complicating factors, the more appealing it probably is," said Cross.

By comparison, the equally tragic story of Alexis Patterson may have appeared less compelling in part by her stepfather's past involvement in a bank robbery.

Wesley Dale Morgan, 2, disappeared from Clinton, Louisiana, a year ago.
Wesley Dale Morgan, 2, disappeared from Clinton, Louisiana, a year ago.  

"My criminal background has nothing to do with what is happening with this baby," Bourgeois said. "I haven't been in trouble since 1989. My criminal background is irrelevant."

Suspicions can complicate a story as well. Wesley Dale Morgan has been missing more than a year in spite of intense local searches that involved local and state police and helicopters.

But with a complete absence of clues, the story went beyond the simple tragic mystery of a missing 2-year-old boy. Investigators question the mother's story. The boyfriend she was living with at the time is also currently in jail in connection with a shooting.

In the case of a missing child, such complicating factors may possibly be the difference between a national headline and national obscurity.




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