ST. CLOUD -- Soon after news broke of her daughter's disappearance from a Grand Forks, N.D., shopping mall Nov. 22, Linda Walker said she was besieged with media calls to her Pequot Lakes home that began as early as 5 a.m. and ended as late as midnight.
This added to a state of exhaustion Walker and her family felt as they found themselves trapped in the middle of a family crisis. Walker's daughter, Dru Sjodin, remains missing while a Crookston Level 3 sex offender now stands trial for her kidnapping.
During a panel discussion Friday at St. Cloud State University, Walker joined other Minnesotans who have been stricken with personal tragedies that thrust themselves into the media spotlight. The panelists spoke to radio, television and newspaper reporters who covered the events and SCSU mass communications students. They talked about their experiences with the media at "Tears and Tragedy: Crisis Journalism Minnesota Style," part of the 32nd First Amendment Forum at the university. The annual forum was hosted by the SCSU Society of Professional Journalists and the Department of Mass Communications.
Walker was joined at the event by Patty Wetterling, Jacob Wetterling's mother; Doug Standke, principal at Rocori High School where last fall two students were killed in a school shooting; Nathan Slinkard, a friend of missing St. John's University student Josh Guimond; and Ben Theisen, a detective with the Waite Park Police Department.
"In an abduction, time is your enemy," said Wetterling, whose 11-year-old son was kidnapped by a masked gunman near his home in St. Joseph on Oct. 22, 1989. He has yet to be found. "There is no 24-hour waiting program."
Wetterling said overall the media have been "incredibly kind" to her and her family in the search for her son. The case has brought in 40,000 leads. She said she learned early on that to get Jacob's photograph out in the media would require her to appear on television. She said initially she was frightened she would say the wrong thing.
Wetterling said people need to be cautious not to judge the behavior of family members who have a missing child or are suddenly caught in a public crisis. Everyone reacts differently to crisis situations. She said 50 people turned in her husband, Jerry, to law enforcement because they didn't like the way he looked on television. As a result, he stopped doing television interviews.
Walker said people early on were critical of the decision she and her husband, Sidney Walker, made to stay home in Pequot Lakes rather than travel to Grand Forks and search for her daughter. They wanted to be home in case Dru called.
"While an event like this is news-breaking for you, it's heartbreaking for us," Walker said.
Walker said the majority of her experiences with the media have been positive. Most reporters who have interviewed her about Dru seemed to be sincere in their desire to help her family, she said.
But there have been other less desirable experiences. During a recent national television show interview the well-known host couldn't keep her name and the names of her family members straight while on air. Or when a Crookston reporter asked her if she had any ill feelings toward the people of Crookston because it was the hometown of Alphonso Rodriguez Jr., the man charged in connection with her daughter's disappearance. (No, she doesn't.) Or seeing newspaper front pages that showed photographs of her smiling daughter placed right next to those of Rodriguez.
Recently a reporter asked Walker if she was upset that Audrey Seiler was found alive while her daughter has not been found. (Later Friday it was learned that Seiler's abduction from her Madison, Wis., apartment building was a hoax.) Walker said she burst into tears when she learned Seiler was found alive. She said she was elated that the college student was back home with her parents.
Slinkard was the last person who saw his friend Josh Guimond alive. Guimond left Slinkard's apartment about midnight on Nov. 2, 2002. He has never been seen since.
"It's hard to be the last person who saw him," said Slinkard. "You ask yourself those 'what if' questions."
Slinkard said it upset him that most media reports about Guimond's disappearance made it seem as if alcohol was a major factor. He said Guimond had been drinking but not enough to be intoxicated.
"One of my best friends is gone and you guys seem to be focusing on how he had been drinking," said Guimond.
Standke had been principal at Rocori High School in Cold Spring for 10 years when at 11:27 a.m. Sept. 24, 2003, a student entered the school and fatally gunned down two students. He said the magnitude of the event was unbelievable for everyone involved. Within 20 minutes every media outlet in the state was outside the school, along with the BCA, FBI and other law enforcement officials, he said.
"We were a crime scene," said Standke.
He said within 15 minutes of the school shooting the superintendent received a phone call from a CNN Florida news bureau wanting a live interview. Standke said a few journalists tried to sneak into school meetings closed to the media by pretending to be parents of students at the school. He said he felt a certain Twin Cities television station sensationalized the tragedy by using multiple images of the Rocori school shooting in its television promotional ads.
Theisen, a 26-year law enforcement veteran, said the media have helped the Waite Park Police Department solve crimes that otherwise would have gone unsolved.
The panelists said the media have played an important factor in helping them find their missing loved ones. They gave advice to journalists at the forum.
"Be respectful for us," Walker said. "We're willing to talk about our child, our friend, but we don't want to be deceived or misrepresented. We want to be the voices for our children."
"Please don't give up on our kids," said Wetterling. "Please continue to help us until our children are found."
Gary Gilson, executive director of the Minnesota News Council, served as moderator for the forum. He said children as young as 10 need to be taught how to read a newspaper or watch television news as critical consumers, not passive observers of news.
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