Using the media to alert about missing kids a mixed blessing
Despite recent cases, abductions might be down
By Lenora Chu
National media coverage of a spate of recent child abductions by non-relatives or "strangers" suggests that the number of child kidnappings is on the rise, but local experts on the issue say the opposite may be true.
"There certainly have been a cluster of cases lately," said Dr. Daniel Broughton, a Mayo Clinic pediatrician and founding chairman of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "But recent statistics would indicate the incidence of kidnappings is not increasing, and may in fact be decreasing."
The media has been criticized during the past year for creating national news out of a select number of child kidnappings simply to feed public interest in the issue.
"If you took a tragic case where a child is kidnapped and murdered, that's national news and rightly so," said Roger Peterson, Rochester's police chief. "But then there's other cases where the child is missing for several hours but later located -- would that story generate national news coverage normally? No."
For example, in the past two weeks, front-page, national attention has been showered on a case in which two teenage girls were abducted in California and another situation in which a month-old baby girl was taken from her mother's car in Texas.
"With cable TV and 24-hour news coverage (the media) go with it and go with it and go with it and these things take on a life of their own," Broughton said. "There may be overkill on that, which creates a level of concern that's not helpful."
Yet experts are loathe to fault the press because, at the same time, widespread media coverage means more eyes looking for missing children and their abductors, and in the cases of the California teen-agers and the baby girl in Texas, resulted in recovery of the children just hours after they were abducted.
"If you don't have a big media response," Broughton said, "it cuts into the number of people who know a child is missing -- it's absolutely critical that as many people as possible know to look for the child because time is critical."
Through the "Amber Alert" system, named after a 9-year-old girl in Arlington, Texas, who was abducted in 1996 and later found dead, authorities in California and Texas released details of these two kidnapping cases to the public as soon as they were reported. Tips called in from drivers on the road who spotted a suspect or getaway vehicle led to recovery of the children.
Currently undergoing trial runs in Minnesota, Amber Alert uses the emergency broadcast system -- most commonly used for bad weather warnings -- to quickly pump through radio and television stations descriptions of the abductor, the vehicle used, the location of the abduction and other information immediately after a kidnapping occurs.
One desired result of Amber Alert and one that is more likely to occur with widespread use of the system, according to Peterson, would be a situation where the abductor abandons the crime and leaves the child unharmed.
When used, the broadcast would interrupt regular station programming every 15 minutes for the first two hours, and every half-hour for three hours thereafter.
"It's very seldom that (Amber Alert) would be needed," Peterson said, "but when it's needed it's very valuable. We'd like to have that in place as soon as possible."
Peterson said he does not know when the alert system will be up and running.