Thursday, November 1, 2007

Missing Woman Case: The True Crimes of Bad Journalism

Get out the milk cartons, folks. Here's the poster children for missing journalism in a case that's at least a scandal, and may be a deadly crime.

Wife #4 disappears. Police re-open investigation into the death of wife #3, found dead in a bathtub after filing an order of protection against her husband.

The husband, 53-year-old Drew Peterson, is a veteran Chicago police officer. Not only do we now have a cop investigation of a cop, the 23-year-old missing woman's name is Stacy Peterson, eerily close to the infamous Laci and Scott Peterson case. That definitely makes it "made for a TV movie" fodder.

And, there's also a 30-year-difference in age that seemingly only matters at the start of the romance, when she was dangerously close to being under age. Maybe. In fact, the math of the case when you add up some numbers that this Fox News story doesn't tell you.

To get those numbers, a reader has to also find the Chicago Tribune article, which fairly screams in purple prose and lounges in lavender shades of Mickey Spillane. The Trib tells us that Peterson and wife #4 (the 17-year-old, not the dead 40-year-old in the bathtub) "met six years ago."

That would be 2001, roughly. In 2004, wife #3, Kathleen Savio, dies in bathtub incident. And, according to the Trib again, the current Peterson couple has two children, one of whom is four years old. That's a birthdate of 2003. You do the math.

But we aren't done yet. The Fox story, high up, includes a statement that Peterson isn't considered a suspect. Really? Then why trumpet the possible connections between dead wife #3 and missing wife #4?

OK, we'll grant that the combination is a natural for news coverage--unless you're writing for the Trib. Or unless you then muddy the waters with a hinted-at link to two other missing wives.

Fox News suddenly veers and slogs into a swamp: "But Stacy Peterson is the third wife to vanish in the last six months in the Chicago area, the latest in a series of mothers whose families say they would never leave their children behind.

Chicago police found a body believed to be that of missing 39-year-old Alma Mendez, a mother of three, who disappeared Sunday on a jog near a forest preserve."

So now Peterson is #3 in a series of women who've disappeared, and whose connection may be: they're wives and mothers. One of them is Lisa Stebic of Plainsville, Ill who disappeared six months ago. However, the Fox story tells us, her husband, Craig, has been named as a "person of interest" by police.

Then why drag her case, and that of Mendez, into the Peterson (Stacy) case, Fox? You creak open a door to a "wives gone missing!" macabre exhibit and then immediately slam it. That's called over-reaching to tie into other news stories, at the cost of clarity for readers.

Back to the Chicago Tribune though, which is long on sentiment, and short on up-front facts. "...
Sitting at a desk in his house Wednesday afternoon, unshaven and with bags under his eyes, Drew Peterson, 53, said his wife, Stacy, 23, called him about 9 p.m. Sunday and told him she was leaving....."Sorry, I get choked up about it," Peterson said, his voice cracking....
As the couple's two children, ages 2 and 4, scampered around the house, he talked about celebrating the couple's fourth wedding anniversary Oct. 18. "

Bring out the tissues. This is sob sister journalism.

The Trib story does have some facts, including Stacy's age and the notation that the couple married two years after they started dating. But wait! That would be (counting on fingers) in 2003, if they met six years ago.

Back to Fox, who identified wife #3 (dead in bathtub) as still Peterson's wife in 2004. Is your head spinning yet? Mine is. So was #3 his ex-wife at the time of her death? Buried deep, deep in the Trib story is some more insight into the whole numbers game. Why is the Trib more concerned with the baggy-eyed, cracking-voiced husband who also is found "chuckling softly" than with a straight-up accounting of facts?

Darned if I know. But I do know this: a woman is missing under suspicious circumstances, and between two major news sources, you still can't get the whole story.

And I call that missing journalism. Are we sure there isn't a milk carton category for that?

Note: Have you seen Stacy Peterson? If so, contact the Illinois State Police immediately.

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