Disappearance of baby captivates, frustrates readers

Last week I appeared on “Up to Date,” a radio show on KCUR hosted by The Kansas City Star’s political correspondent Steve Kraske. One of our topics of conversation was the ongoing media coverage of the disappearance of Lisa Irwin — something readers have been contacting me about often as well.

KCUR’s Sylvia Maria Gross, who was also on the show, made an observation off the air that I think reflects the thoughts of many: “It’s a story that everyone says they’re tired of hearing about, and then everyone goes on to talk about it for 30 minutes.”

Since the infant was reported missing in the early hours of Oct. 4, law enforcement and everyday citizens have been following the case closely. The Star’s print edition has carried at least 45 mentions of Baby Lisa as of this writing, and KansasCity.com has featured many more, often incremental updates.

Especially in the early days of the investigation, many readers told me it should be The Star’s highest priority. “Even if they don’t do Amber Alerts after the first day or so, I think it’s the responsibility of (The Star) to keep this little missing baby’s picture out there every day until she comes home,” said one caller, expressing sentiments I heard from others.

Editors on KansasCity.com responded to requests such as these, creating a special red box at the top of the main page featuring the latest updates and a photo of Lisa. The story has been a mainstay in the print edition, often running on Page A1.

However, not all readers have welcomed the coverage. In particular, I’ve heard from critics who dinged The Star for giving too-prominent play to self-proclaimed private investigator “Wild Bill” Stanton and New York lawyer Joe Tacopina.

“My complaint is that, at this point, any additional coverage of Stanton serves to gratify if not validate him,” emailed one. “I agree that his initial arrival to KC was newsworthy, as well as the mystery about who’s actually paying his tab (Mary Sanchez’s Oct. 13 column was spot-on), but from here on out, I feel like there’s no longer a substantive reason to include him in media coverage. As they say, he’s ‘famous for being famous.’ Why make it any worse?”

As October wore on and the investigation seemed to be producing little new information, some readers contacting me seemed frustrated.

“How come The Star isn’t reporting on the rumors everyone is talking about?” asked one caller. “Don’t you think it looks a little bad if everyone hears all these things, but the paper never even mentions them?”

That’s a fair question to ponder, because it runs counter to a fundamental of journalists’ training. Rumor and innuendo are easier to spread in the text-message social media age than ever before, so should reporters specifically knock down at least the most patently untrue among them? I think there’s a strong case sometimes.

Other readers have simply found the coverage overkill. “Enough on Baby Lisa,” said one flatly. “No more anything until we know more than speculation, at least not on the front page. What other (stories) do we get mention after mention after mention, all basically saying, ‘We don’t know?’”

The irony: She and I went on to talk about the case for at least another 10 minutes. Regardless of how frustrating the lack of apparent progress may be, it’s still a captivating story.

This column was originally published in the Kansas City Star on Oct. 30, 2011.

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