CNN or C.A.N. — Child Abduction Network?

One reason Americans are so extremely terrified about child abductions is that whenever we turn on the TV or computer, there’s another one. As if these horrific crimes are happening 24/7, when actually the media is only too happy to fly across the country — or world — to set up camp wherever a cute, white girl has disappeared. Tight news budgets get thrown out the window  for a story like this. But because that story then shows up on our screen at home,  it feels like it’s happening right around the corner. All the time.

What happens when there is NOT a new story like this for the media to feast upon? Instead of traveling to another state, or country, they’ll travel back in time. The show 20/20 just did an hour-long look at the Etan Patz kidnapping from 30 years ago. And here’s CNN’s Nancy Grace page , from a few days ago: “Third Grader Stepped Off School Bus, Disappeared.”

Start reading it: ” With the weekend arriving and a long day finally over, 8-year-old Cherrie Mahan stepped off her yellow school bus on a chilly Friday around 4 p.m….”

Oh, by the way, CNN finally adds at the end of paragraph three: This was in 1985.

I’m not saying that it doesn’t make sense to sometimes revisit a cold case in hopes of solving it. I do hope someone solves this one. But it begins to  look suspiciously self-serving when networks desperate for viewers keep coming up with the exact same kind of story, served up any which way they can. How about the cold case of an African-American teenager gone missing? Or a schitzophrenic adult? Or someone who isn’t winsome, white and under five feet tall?

A newly Free-Range mom dropped me a little note this morning trying to help all of us (herself included)  put our fears in perspective: The chance of a child being kidnapped and murdered? 1 in 1.5 million. The chance of a child ending up at some point with some form of depression? 1 in 4.

It is extremely depressing, disheartening, lose-your-faith-in-humanity-izing, to keep being presented with the most vile crimes on earth as if that’s what life  is all about. As if that’s just what you can expect if you’re bringing up a kid these days.

So what’s the alternative?

One of the chapters in my book is called, “Turn Off the News.” At the end it has some suggestions for how to get started  going Free-Range, including, “Get up and go out. Spend that hour you were going to watch ‘Law and Order’ on a walk with the kids instead. Look around at all the unspeakable crimes not being committed. This is called the Real World. (Not to be confused with MTV’s version, which is a crime all  its own.)”

When we depend on the media to shape our world view, we’re going to get a world view that looks a whole lot like the view from a harried, ratings-obsessed assignment desk: If it bleeds, it leads. If it’s sad, we’re glad! If it’s an abduction, ramp up production! 

Which they sure do.

But if a network thinks its job is to terrify us, maybe it’s time to turn the tables and terrify them: Let them watch their viewers mysteriously disappear, never to be seen again.

Someday, they may even do a cold case special on us. — Lenore

48 Responses

  1. I totally agree with the idea of turning off the news. Watching news fills us with fear and leads us to believe that danger lurks around every corner: mall parking lots, hurricanes, halloween candy, tornados a thousand miles away and yes, child abductions halfway across the world. It raises our level of panic and leaves us cowering in the corner of life. Turning it off is the best advice ever!

  2. Turn off the TV network news and support your local public radio news station instead! A great way to get news and information without being bombarded by sensationalized stories of missing white children.

  3. You make a very good point when you talk about how inherently racist the coverage of abductions are; whinesome, white and under five feet tall get the most publicity. There are places in Canada where Anishnabe girls and women have been regularly disappearing from for years and the RCMP don’t do anything. They don’t care because hey, they’re Native Canadian and who cares about THEM?

    It’s not just the Anishnabe; Hispanic women, African American women, any person who isn’t a straight, white man isn’t newsworthy, unless of course they’re a kid, and then there’s publicity out the wazhoo.

    We have to care about what happens to ALL people, not just the short cute ones, or the straight white ones, or the handsome man ones, but all people.

  4. I’ve never had cable TV, our TV set died about 5 years ago and was never replaced, and we stopped getting a daily paper about 8 years ago. I have never been happier. I read our local neighborhood paper weekly. I skim the headlines of a major newspaper every other day or so on the web. If I happen to be in the car alone, I might listen to the BBC world news hour on NPR. But I figure if the world ends, I’ll figure it out. If I don’t know about every tragedy that every happened everywhere, my life will not end. If I don’t watch every edition of Law and Order and CSI, I won’t become a social pariah. We can be informed about what we want to be informed about, without having sensationalized crap shoved down our throats 24/7. It is heaven.

  5. I agree completely on the news and completely banned watching any TV news about 10 years ago – it’s made a huge difference. I still follow news on the internet, but I can pick and choose what I want to obsess about.
    The other thing is what I like to call the “Neurotic Parent’s Monthlies” – the Parenting magazines that highlight all the things we could be more neurotic about (child abductions, environmental hazards, etc). Most are done with a complete lack of journalistic checks and balances and with a ton of emotion.

  6. Well said!

    I think that soon the big networks will have to run a special documentary entitled “MIssing: Today’s Children and their Abducted Childhoods.”

    This all adds to the reason we are going semi-tv free (Must. Watch. Conan.) for the summer and kickin’ it old school by staying outside until bedtime.

  7. Heartily agree! I stopped watching the news (local and national) on a regular basis after I had my first child. I realized that a) every day’s news sounded pretty much the same, b) it was never GOOD news, and c) every night I was upset and worried and anxious (and occasionally crying) over “all the evil in the world”. And don’t parents have enough to worry about already? And sure enough, in the eight-plus years since my decision, the world has continued to turn. Thanks to the internet, I have a much better chance at getting actual reporting (you know, the kind with facts and everything) about current events I’m interested in, as opposed to being scared silly and used to sell advertising time on the local network affiliates.

  8. Well by all means turn off the news for all the aforementioned reasons. BUT might I play at least a mild devil’s advocate and suggest that part of the appeal of TV producers running these types of stories is precise BECAUSE they are so rare and, by extension, captivating?

  9. My point being, you’re absolutely right to admonish folks not to get completely saturated with this junk because it might distort their world view and make them think that these stories are the norm, but the networks never actually imply that this is the case. On the contrary, if it happened every day viewers would get tired of hearing about it. You know, like the war in Iraq.

  10. Steve, I think that the implication is that It Could Happen To You. That certainly is the message people take away from it. People are absolutely convinced that their children’s lives are inherently more dangerous than their own were at that age, and are shocked to hear about crime statistics. Very few people–and I’m talking about people who should have reasonably strong critical thinking skills–recognize that it’s not that the crimes are more frequent, it’s that technology has made it much easier for us to hear about those crimes, and hear about them endlessly.

    On a related note, there are few people who Mr. Nonymous hates more than Nancy Grace. He sees her as a vicious terror-monger who rushes to judgment, and what I’ve seen of her show supports that assessment.

  11. A few years ago, my over-reactive in-laws insisted that child abductions happen *all the time*. “Millions of children” they used to claim.

    I pointed out that if millions of children were abducted, then the odds were that they would know of a case right in their own close circle of family and friends. I used some of the math akin to the “6 degrees of ___” game to show them how off base they were in their beliefs.

    Oddly, I was not rewarded with their undying gratitude for showing them the error of their ways. They still kept insisting on the “millions” figure. Not unsurprisingly, they never allowed their two girls to walk past the end of the driveway.

  12. We rarely watch our local evening news. The other night we catched the following, “4 year olds harrowing ordeal. Caught on tape, a 4 year old falls off a cliff.”

    O.k. so we stayed tuned. Turns out that last August, some people were staying out at the coast. They were taking pictures of their kids along a fence that had a wide opening. One of the little girls fell through the opening into a meadow about six feet wide, which was then followed by a cliff. The dad who was RIGHT THERE, jumped the fence and grabbed his girl who was SITTING IN THE MEADOW!

    Hardly harrowing. My husband and laughed and laughed. They even interviewed the little girl, now five. She said, “It was really scary.”

    So was this news story.

  13. Yup, no nightly news in our house, either. That stopped with 9/11, when my son was only 3 yo. Now and then we watch recorded news commentary shows, but even those get on my nerves and aren’t watched often outside of election season.

    I can’t even pretend stop on the channel to watch the Nancy Grace show without my husband bellowing “get that woman off the screen”. She really is a piece of work.

    We’re debating canceling the morning newspaper, too, with pangs of guilt over the looming threat of bankruptcy of the paper and the notion that not reading the paper makes us less informed on important matters. But we get most of our world news online and from overseas relatives anyway. It’s hard to justify subscribing to a paper that goes unopened too many days and mostly serves as bedding for our worm compost bin. The worms might miss the local rag more than we would. And our son has just discovered the comics page – we’ll probably put off the decision on the newspaper a little longer.

  14. That’s why I don’t watch the news anymore (and I never watched cable news…I edit them out of my favorites list on the TV). I’m so tired of having to defend my choice to let my children play outside alone or walk home from school without me 2 feet behind them.
    Yesterday I discovered that you can look up crimes in the city of Chicago. You can even narrow it down by type or zip code so I searched my zip code for crimes in the last month. Sure there were some. but the ones actually within a 5 block radius of my house were all things like burglary, vandalism, um, yeah, that was it. There was one house broken into a couple blocks away and I guess someone vandalized or did something to the high school a block from my kids’ school but mostly it was stuff like cars getting keyed or broken in to.
    I even searched for violent crimes going back months and got nothing. My neighborhood is safe just as I thought.

  15. While I agree with everything you’ve said in this post I think it is especially important to underscore your point about these cases always being about white suburban girls. Nicholas Kristoff from the NY Times has been writing about this phenomenon for a long time.

    In fact in a recent column of his he talks about the fact that young black urban girls go missing with far greater frequency but no news desk is interested in those stories. A quote from his May 7th column in the Times: “If a middle-class white girl goes missing, radio stations broadcast amber alerts, and cable TV fills the air with “missing beauty” updates. But 13-year-old black or Latina girls from poor neighborhoods vanish all the time, and… few people who show any interest.”

    Let’s get real not only about the actual crime stats but also who the crimes are being perpetrated by and who the real victims are. Thank you for continuing to remind us all to look deeper into what’s real and what’s imagined.

  16. I’m in the minority. I watch the news every night and read multiple news sources on line. But I don’t focus on crime news. I am politically active and follow different bills in both the state and Federal House/Senate. I keep track how my different representatives/Senators vote and write weekly e-mails about what I want them to do.

    I pay particular attention to Nanny state bills and fight to have them defeated.

  17. I stopped watching the news and reading the daily paper when my son was about a year old (he is now 6). I refused to be a victim of news fear mongering any longer at that point. Yet, I still manage to find out and keep up with what is going on that is ACTUAL news (not fear mongering crap) through listening to NPR on the drive to work or checking various websites and selecting the content I wish to read every few days. I am convinced that part of the reason my dad is so fearful of every day life is that he spends a large portion of every day watching TV news and reading various papers.

  18. Most people are subjected to an enormous amount of “news we can’t really use”, yet like some unwholesome but tempting foods that are perpetually available, it takes an enormous amount of willpower to not indulge in our tendencies towards sensationalism and to selectively ignore non-news dressed up as news without tuning out what’s we really need to learn and think about.

    It’s much the same way with mass media advice on health issues and other areas where we rely on “experts” to inform us. Most of what passes as health advice in the mass media (and dare I say even medical advice) isn’t even true or based on unquestionable science. One has to carefully examine sources of information for bias, for completeness, for appropriate context, etc. Most people don’t have the time, the interest, or the inclination to look deeper.

  19. The only TV news I watch is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

  20. Alida – did you see the punchline to that fall? Since she almost tumbled off the cliff (after her parents encouraged her to stand on the railing of a fence designed to keep people back from said cliff), the family demanded changes to the fence, to better block it off. They have been made.

    (Reportedly, the girl stopped just inches from the edge, altho this maynot be the same case, I now realize – this one was retrieved by an adult cousin, her father wasn’t there at the time. So I may be talking about a different case…)

  21. Here in Southern California “car chases” are a big deal. The FAA must have their hands full with law enforcement helicopters and three or four local news choppers all following the same nut case behind the wheel. It’s totally irrelevant unless the guy (or gal) turns down your street, but it’s captivating because it’s like a sporting event–nobody knows how it will end. In most cases, the car finally stops and the officers lead the driver away after making sure he (or she) gets “up close and personal with the pavement”. On rare occasions the chase ends in a gunfight, hopefully with the driver going off to the morgue and no officers harmed. If there aren’t any car chases in the LA area, and nothing else is happening, the news director will run chase scenes from Texas, Florida, or other distant areas, preferably those where the car goes off the road and rolls a few times. My wife sometimes watches the 11 PM news, mostly for the weather segment. The “news” reports often show events involving people who are low income, low IQ or both. Sometimes I have to remind her of a saying attributed to the late Frank Zappa: “The two most plentiful things in the Universe are hydrogen and stupidity.”

  22. We turned off the news on September 11, 2001 and it hasn’t been back on since. Not one time.

  23. The obsession with missing children hasn’t been here so that is not an issue. The biggest news childwise is abuse within the home. You do tend to get a bit fed up with it and wish that those in charge would simply deal with it properly. A bit more input from the powers that be for services would be a good start.

    I don’t generally watch tv news either. I read the local papers and the rest I get online. The rest of the house hold don’t read news at all. Sometimes I tell them stuff and that is it.

    viv in nz

  24. My own mother is forever nagging me because I don’t watch the news. I stopped while I was pregnant with my first child, it was really depressing to me that all I ever seemed to hear about at that time was parents (especially mothers) hurting or killing their children. I am so much happier now.

  25. We don’t watch TV, so we miss out on all the direct messages of it. We just get to live with the effects it has on our neighbors and community. Which is Not Pretty. How do these sources get away with continuing to call themselves “news”? I remember once at the gym seeing a Fox News “special alert” about “dangerous doors” with video footage of people getting stuck in automatic doors at grocery stores and shopping malls. Seriously.

  26. Steve: The appeal of sensationalistic scare-stories to the media is that they produce a high level of emotional arousal in viewers, and marketing research shows that viewers with a high level of arousal remember the commercials better. There’s also the fact that the more dangerous the real world looks, the more appealing the fake world offered by the commercials looks.

    Tom: People like your in-laws generally believe that there’s an enormous conspiracy of Satanist pedophiles who have full control over the police, vital-statistics agencies, news media, etc. and are therefore able to cover up millions of rapes and hundreds of thousands of murders. However, there a few righteous ordinary citizens who can see through their deceptions, but they’re never believed. The appeal of such mass conspiracy theories is that they make the people who espouse them feel special and superior.

    A more commonly-cited figure is 50,000 kids murdered and abducted each year. According to the CDC, 50,000 is approximately the number of all-cause deaths in people under 25 per year. So if the commonly-cited figure is correct, that means neonatal medicine has advanced to the point that 100% of one-pound preemies survive, that all childhood cancers and infections are fully curable, that fatal car accidents involving teenagers and young twentysomethings are a thing of the past, that child abuse and neglect within the home has been eliminated, that a cure’s been found for Tay-Sachs disease, and so on. One can argue that that would be a Good Thing rather than a Bad Thing. Oh, and as a corrolary to your “six degrees” argument, we’d all have a close friend or relative who was one of those monsters.

    Anna: The big problem with health/medical advice in the mass media is that science doesn’t work on deadline whereas the news media does. Consequently you get breathless reporting of what are really very preliminary and tentative results; in real science, you don’t pay much attention to the first report of a finding until others have been able to reproduce it. There’s also a tendency to force-fit science into non-scientific narratives. For example, the notion that certain individual foods are “healthy” or “unhealthy” is actually a religious/spiritual one, not a scientific one (science can talk about overall patterns of eating as being healthy or unhealthy, but it’s a logical fallacy to extend this to individual foods). So consequently media reports regarding what foods “science” says you “should” or “shouldn’t” eat are basically random and inconsistent.

    Not addressing anyone in particular: a lot of people have a vested interest in believing that the world has become a very dangerous place and promoting that belief. Some, as Lenore has pointed out, are simply trying to sell products. Others have political axes to grind; in particular, many of them are angry at two Supreme Court decisions, Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp, where the court “kicked God out of the public schools” (translation: forbade teachers and administrators from using their authority to impose what ever flavor of Christianity had the local majority on all the students, e.g. Lenore’s kids’ teachers are forbidden from trying to convert them to “Messianic Judaism”). Brian Rohrbough, the father of one of the kids killed at Columbine, travels around the country proclaiming that the teaching of evolution is responsible for the nonstop rise in youth violence; obviously publicizing the fact that youth violence is actually declining would interfere with his crusade (speaking of youth crime, surveys asking the public what percentage of teenagers have been in serious trouble with the law usually come up with figures around 67%; actual police statistics show a rate of around 5%).

    So lots of people want the world to be dangerous so that they can sell their cure for it. Cognitive dissonance theory predicts that evidence contrary to their beliefs will only harden their positions; this has actually been observed in the spectacle of organized attempts to find the body of a murder victim, coverage of which has been accompanied by commentary from the victim herself (not recordings of what she said before she was murdered; interviews with her after she was found alive and well; I think she finds the whole thing pretty amusing).

  27. Here here! Haven’t watched the news since watching Michael Moore’s “Bowling For Columbine”.

  28. Raises hands to be counted as one of the tv-news-free families.

  29. I am definitely a Free Range Mom and I want to say thank you for this column so that I know I am not alone in my beliefs. That said…I quit watching the news when my oldest son went to Iraq. The nightly news was going to drive me insane. I didn’t know where he was and hearing about all the soldiers dying left me wondering if I was going to get the next phone call. I found out after I turned it off that it was also affecting my eleven year old daughter. She was having nightmares and I couldn’t figure out why. Well the combination of the nightly news, worrying about her brothers (both are in the military) and the next door neighbors telling her not to go into the woods because of all the evil men lurking there was more than she could handle. SO I turned off the news and moved. You know what? No more nightmares. She rides her bike all over our new neighborhood without any fear enjoying her friends and meeting our neighbors. Her brothers are fine healthy and we hear from them regularly. I have convinced her not to worry about the things she cannot change or prevent.

  30. I havent’ had cable tv since I moved out of my parents place just about 6 years ago now and I dont’ really miss it. When I do catch the 11 o’clock news or read it online I find it so depressing and/or emotionally triggering I have to stop watching or reading. We’ve pretty much stopped getting the news at all except for what we catch on the radio or if we’re looking for something really specific online.

  31. Amen! and Amen!

  32. It seems that the fear mongers and right wing politicians must have something to gain other than viewership with these hysterical stories. My hypothesis is that whatever the stated motivation for broadcasting old kidnapping stories and sensational coverage of current tales of mayhem, is a huge boon to the Republican Party which has shamed itself by exploiting our fears of “others” (immigrants, Arabs, accused child molesters, etc) in order to get votes. Those liberals are just going to open up the jails and borders, you know. Liberal media, indeed.

  33. I watch the news almost every night, but I don’t get wrapped up in the negative. I like to know what information is being put in people’s heads. I do followup research and try to present facts to people who parrot what the heard on the news. I like the looks on people face when I present a piece of reality the news “failed” to report.
    No no don’t call me a hero . . .

  34. I’m sure this doesn’t belong here, but I saw the article about the 16-year old who wants to sail around the world unassisted, and how she’s facing lots of negative opinions about it, and I thought of this site. That’s about the ultimate in free-range parenting.

  35. I’d love to have a citation on the 1 in 1.5 million vs 1 in 4 stats! I totally believe them, but it would be good to have for those who don’t. Can anyone help?

  36. Not to sound all hippy dippy, but I stopped watching the news quite awhile ago because I felt like it just let a lot of negative energy into my body that didn’t need to be there. I don’t want that kind of negative input to become normal in my life.

  37. I would like to suggest that folks might want to hang out at a couple of the sites Lenore references in her book. these include Dept of Justice statistics here and the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire here I have enjoyed researching and fact checking at both and getting my personal reality more fact based.

    After doing our own research we may find the evening news less upsetting as the fear mainipulations by politicians, producers, and advertisers become easy to identify to the point of looking like bad comedy. I find fear and anxiety really block rational thought and observation. I enjoy the Daily Show and Colbert Report as their sharp comedy reduce both after which our rational minds are more receptive and they can explain political process and offer fresh perspectives of facts along with the belly laughs.

    I do worry a bit about free rangers avoiding news and current events even though I can sure understand the response. We do need to protect children from intense and scary news stories they are not developmentally able to process constructively. As adults we need to know what is going on but maintain a healthy suspicion of the news channels and sources. It helps to filter out the fear manipulations when we have done a little study and have some of our own facts, or at least know where to find them. Unfortunately TV reporters just don’t/won’t do this for us nearly enough.

  38. […] CNN or C.A.N. — Child Abduction Network? One reason Americans are so extremely terrified about child abductions is that whenever we turn on the TV or computer, […] […]

  39. Laura: It probably was the same story. It was featured months ago and it happened in Oregon. I would hate to think there were two different/same stories.

  40. I’m glad I stumbled across this blog. I think that the extent of our media-driven fear reaches beyond child-abductions even. Our constant worry about the future given our current economic state stresses me out to a ridiculous extent. It seems the government is either preserving our kids future, or sending it to hell. It makes me worry if two years from now I’ll be able to provide for my now one-year-old son. Then I realized, either way, there’s not a whole lot I can do about it, and listening to the news constantly only makes it worse.

  41. The power of the media is far and wide , unfortunatlly it is also very persuasive as it always tells you about doom and gloom …Turn it off I say.

  42. Leonard-

    Although I think members of both parties are equally guilty here, I have to say that fear-mongering plays right into the hands of big gov’t liberals, too. What better way to get people to hand over their civil liberties than to attack their competence and play on their fears? Not to mention take away the right of parents to help their children be free-thinking and self-sufficient.

  43. I agree not every kid in the country is going to get kidnapped I’m 11 and my 9 we go up to grocery store by ourselves every now and then its a couple blocks and we have to cross a major street S. Salina but we always come back with bread and eggs.

  44. The only TV news I watch is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

  45. simple solution to turning off the news.
    Don’t turn it on in the first place.
    At the risk of extreme literary firefight: why would anyone wish for these talking dummies to inform us about anything? (let alone anything that might actually be vaguely important.)

  46. […] She rattles off the statistics to me on the phone: “There is a 1 in 1.5 million chance of a child being abducted. There is a 1 in 3 chance of a child being obese and it’s 1 in 2 if a child is black or […]

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