Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Wednesday, October 02, 2002


If you, like me, watch the lead half-hour of network morning "news" programs whilst getting ready for work, wherein they usually set the tone for what they feel is newsworthy, you tend to notice certain trends in what I call "fear-mongering lite." Killer sharks, killer viruses (from anthrax to West Nile, far fewer people succumb to these than to things like the flu!), killer this-and-that. The way these subjects are covered seems calculated to increase the amount of anxiety on the part of viewers while providing comparatively little factual information or perspective. For me, they also tend to cheapen real emotions and tragedies, as with the occasional Parade of the Bereaved. God knows my heart goes out to anybody and everybody who's lost a loved one, but the umpteenth time a victim's family member (almost always accompanied by a lawyer!) sobs through an interview with Katie or Anne, it tends to desensitize me to the point where I wish they'd simply grieve in private, like the majority of folks out there who lose good people who don't happen to be whatever the media wants to characterize as "heroes" on any given day.

The latest "shark attack/parade of bereaved" type stories seem to be about child abductions. I can't think of anything more horrific (and ratings-grabbing?) than the thought of a child being kidnapped from the supposed safety of her home by a total stranger and subject to further unnameable abuse. And that seems to be what these shows bank on. Maybe they figure the more outrage they can whip up, the more people will stay tuned. In any case, the facts about child abduction tend to get lost in all the hand-wringing and plugs for John Walsh's show, so as someone quite concerned about the fate of our youngest citizens I thought I'd do a little looking around.

My first stop was the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, whose site helpfully provided actual statistics about child abductions, as gathered by the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children, or NISMART for short. This gives a good overview of the numbers, and seems to conclude that incidents of abducted children have certainly not increased from the time when they weren't the focus of these sensationalized reports until now when said reports are ubiquitous, and there are some indications (although not conclusive) that these types of abductions may actually have decreased (but they're awaiting a fuller report next month).

Now I say "these types" because there are many different categories of missing children. This site outlines the NISMART breakdown - family abductions, non-family abductions, runaways, throwadays - and goes into more detail about parental kidnappings, which far, far outnumber kidnappings by strangers. This article from the journal of the National Naval Medical Center quotes the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) as giving pretty much the opposite advice as that implied on the morning shows - in other words, not to panic, because "Current NCMEC data indicates that the number of serious child abduction cases... are consistent with last year's numbers. However, the Center believes that these numbers are decreasing, projecting that there will be about 100 of these types of cases this year with nearly one-half resulting in the death of the child." So see, folks, that's only about fifty kids. Five-oh. Yes, that's still 50 too many, but from the way it's focused on by these shows you'd think it were far more, wouldn't you?

This disproportionate wolf-crying does everyone a disservice. And I believe it probably makes desensitized or needlessly-panicked viewers even less likely to donate to the good works or adhere to the sound advice of the NCMEC or the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children. Just another example of the opposite of "information" often being "television."