Peterson: Preliminary Trial

July 4, 2003

TV's policy on Peterson varies

NEW YORK -- They are on the same TV networks, hours apart. Yet the ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news programs take strikingly different approaches to covering the Laci Peterson case.

A regular morning news viewer is probably intimately acquainted with details about the pregnant Modesto woman whose family reported her missing on Christmas Eve.

But someone who relies on the evening news may not even recognize the names of Peterson and her husband, Scott, who is accused of killing her and their unborn son, Conner.

For the past six months, it has been the third-biggest news story on NBC's "Today" show and its morning brethren. Only the Iraq war rated more attention than the 415 minutes --

nearly seven hours of talking -- that the three shows devoted to the case.

That is more than the space shuttle Columbia disaster and homeland security.

NBC's "Nightly News," ABC's "World News Tonight" and the "CBS Evening News" spent just 12 minutes on the story during the same period.

Sixty-three other stories got more attention in the evening, according to the Tyndall Report, which monitors TV news coverage and compiled the statistics.

"Is it an important story? I can't say," said Paul Slavin, sen-ior vice president of ABC News. "But I can say it was a very, very interesting story."

The shows' formats, in part, dictate the contrary approaches: The evening news has 30 minutes -- minus the commercials -- to sum up the world. "Today" is three hours long, while ABC's "Good Morning America" and "The Early Show" on CBS are two hours.

With that extra time to fill, the morning shows mirror the cable news networks, which have spent many hours on the story.

"It just has so much," said Tom Touchet, executive producer of "Today." "She was the girl next door, she was full of hope and enthusiasm, she was thrilled to be pregnant and she goes missing on Christmas Eve."

Top-rated "Today" has devoted 154 minutes to the case, more than any of its rivals. Touchet said he does not believe that "Today" has overplayed the story. Producers felt that there were significant developments each time it was covered, he said.

Meanwhile, "Nightly News" executive producer Steve Capus said he is "entirely comfortable" with his decision to largely ignore the story.

Andrew Tyndall, a news consultant and president of ADT Research, said Capus has "played it just right. There's no national significance to this story."

But true crime stories are big in the morning, he said. This case has unfolded slowly, and lends itself to interviews of people opining and speculating -- perfect for the morning formula.

And shows have had little trouble finding interview subjects.

"If the Peterson family had decided not to go public or turned down requests for interviews, it would not have been a big story," Tyndall said.

A similar coverage pattern, although not nearly as pronounced, cropped up in 2001 in the disappearance of Chandra Levy of Modesto. Over six months, the morning shows spent 603 minutes on that story, the evening shows 117 minutes, according to Tyndall.

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