Not even the 24-hour coverage of limited information. Floyd Collins, a spelunker, got trapped in a cave in Kentucky, US, back in 1925. It was a 24-hour news event then. Evidently a reporter actually visited him in the cave and interviewed and fed him but could not free him. Here's a link http://www.bluegrassgrotto.org/floyd-c.html
I'm sure at that time plenty of miners were trapped in caves with no hope of rescue, with no where near the publicity, similar to how many children disappear but Madeliene gets the attention.
I think stories of this nature become large when circumstances align.
--- The victim(s) are attractive and sympathetic -- easy to identify with
--- The central characters are flawed and complex -- ambitious, selfish, or poor judgement
--- The public is personally uneasy -- uncertain economic times, war, or crime
When I see a story take on a life of it's own, I've come to wonder what's really bothering people. Are they worried about their jobs? Do they think their government has lost its mind? Are they worried about their kids' future (more than normal)? I also wonder about the possible institutional motives for distracting the public.
On the whole I don't blame the press. They're doing their jobs -- informing and entertaining for profit. It's the public that rewards the press.
And I don't really blame the institutions (gov, biz, church, etc) for avoiding scrutiny by capitalizing on a distraction.
And while it seems there's nobody left to blame but the public, maybe they *should* direct all that irrational uncertainty toward a sensational story so it doesn't get channeled into policy. (a la Patriot Act and Iraq War)
I might rather more substantive news had priority but if the majority/vocal minority is so willing to be sucked in, maybe we ought to be thankful and wait for everybody to calm down.