Wave' Against Girls
Curtis: Tuesday, August 06, 2002
in the News Howard Kurtz has a column on the recent spate of kidnapping
stories in the media. As Kurtz explains, there really is no crime wave;
rather, there is a wave of media attention being given to kidnapping. Kidnappings
that would have been covered locally are now getting national attention.
with such media feeding frenzies is the so-called "Volvo" fallacy , which
leads people to overestimate the likelihood of kidnapping. Not only are
people unnecessarily frightened--including the children that they seek
to protect--but parents are distracted from more significant risks to their
kids' safety. #
Wave' Against Girls By Howard
Post Staff Writer: Friday, August 2, 2002
If you were
watching cable yesterday, you know that two teenage girls were kidnapped
at gunpoint in Lancaster, Calif. A frightening story, to be sure.
after all the hours of coverage, with police news conferences, grieving
relatives, ex-detectives and FBI profilers. Most other news was obliterated
(except for a brief interlude with John Ashcroft announcing the WorldCom
arrests). There was even, like a recycled script, a white Bronco. By mid-afternoon,
police rescued the teenagers and shot the suspect dead – just in time for
the evening wrap-ups.
Is it getting
more dangerous out there for young girls? Ever since Chandra Levy and Elizabeth
Smart, it seems that television is obsessing on some crime story involving
saturation coverage be painting a distorted picture, like the great shark
scare last summer?
University criminologist James Fox told us on CNN last weekend that "in
a typical year, we have 50 to 100 kids who are abducted by strangers and
murdered. This year's no different. . . . There's no epidemic. . . .
chance of being killed by an abductor and by a stranger is significantly
less than the chance that they'll, for example, die by falling off their
bicycle and hitting their head."
not the impression left by the media machine these days. (And why do the
cases always seem to involve girls? Don't boys get snatched as well?)
Sadly, as every
local cop reporter knows, these tragic crimes happen from time to time.
A decade ago, they were covered as local stories, unless they had some
highly unusual element. Now they're national news within minutes.
Does the coverage
help law enforcement (which is why Levy's parents sought publicity)? Maybe,
though non-California viewers couldn't do anything about yesterday's abduction.
(You can read the USA Today account here.) But Fox is among those who say
it could also be spurring copycat crimes. Not to mention scaring parents
The New Republic's
Michelle Cottle, for one, has had enough:
I want every parent out there to find the nearest mirror, gaze deeply into
his or her own eyes, and repeat after me: There is no wild summer epidemic
of child snatching. I will stop letting Larry King make me hysterical.
I will not turn my child into a nervous, paranoid freak terrified of her
own shadow. . . .
"All it took
was a couple of gruesome kidnappings in California for the media to visualize
a story with the potential to whip viewers into a coast-to-coast frenzy
of fear and suspicion. After little Samantha Runnion was snatched from
her yard in Southern California on July 15, the media decided that a trend
was afoot. Within two weeks, having tracked down reports of a couple more
abductions and attempted abductions, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly felt confident
in declaring this 'a summer of hell for America kids.'
we are all horrified by what happened to Danielle van Dam (abducted in
February) and Samantha Runnion. We're thrilled that Erica Pratt (abducted
in July) escaped. And we should continue to pray that Elizabeth Smart (abducted
in June) turns up safe one day soon. But take these much-hyped abductions,
add in the half dozen other cases mentioned by the national media since
the first of the year . . . [it] still doesn't qualify as a new crime wave.
Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that, even in a non-epidemic
year, 100 children nationwide are abducted and either murdered, held for
ransom, or simply never returned. FBI stats put the number of failed attempts
at 150,000 a year. (Tens of thousands more are taken each year by non-custodial
family members, but such cases don't frighten the public nearly as effectively
as do stranger abductions.)
only one or two particularly bizarre cases receive national saturation
coverage in any given year. But now that the media have settled on kidnapping
as the epidemic du jour, ratings-crazed newscasters from Baja to Bangor
are seizing upon even non-mystifying crimes that would normally receive
only local coverage. . . .
talk to me about the media's duty to 'inform the public.' The public didn't
need to watch little Samantha's funeral 'live . . . in its entirety' on
CNN. The public didn't need to listen to Larry King bloviate about this
topic night after night, not just with Runnion's grief-stricken mother,
but also with a panel of people involved in the case, and, most pathetically,
with celebrity hack Dominick Dunne.
It's fine to
alert the public when a child is missing or there's a serial killer on
the loose in the neighborhood, but that's largely a job for local news.
What Larry King, Bill O'Reilly, and the rest are doing is something else
entirely: It's sensationalizing other people's tragedy."
Here's a Fox
poll: 56 percent say the coverage of abducted kids is responsible, 33 percent
call it sensationalized. Watch that space.