Tuesday, May 26, 2009
A Media Lynch Mob in Toronto
As I write this, the body of Victoria Stafford has yet to be found. The eight-year old girl disappeared six weeks ago on her way home from school in Woodstock, Ontario. Since then through southern Ontario, the sound you hear most these days is the howling of the Toronto media mob, calling for justice.
Without question, this appears to be a horrendous crime: an eight year old girl from small town Ontario, snatched off the street by a man and his female companion. Much has been written and aired about the squalid backgrounds of the two alleged perpetrators and the dysfunctional parents of the victim.
But nowhere in the coverage - especially in the Toronto Globe and Mail or on CBC Radio and TV - has there been any perspective around the nature of the crime, whether this is a trend or an aberration or even if the two suspects are given the benefit of the doubt in order for them to have a fair trial - assuming they are formally charged with the murder of Victoria Stafford.
What this coverage does is heighten the sense that our society is surrounded by sexual predators who are just waiting to abduct defenseless little girls.
American media and its Canadian imitators have perfected this scenario: a young, attractive woman or girl – usually blonde – disappears. Police are baffled. Local townspeople are fearful and angry. The media milk this story from every possible angle. Rarely do we hear about an abducted girl or young woman of color who has been kidnapped.
Part of the hysteria around child abductions has been exacerbated by a well-financed organization based in Alexandria, Virginia called the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Celebrities such as Jamie Lee Curtis have been part of the Center’s lobbying efforts in Washington, DC. The media are usually only too eager to help.
The Center has also claimed that annually more than 750,000 children go missing in the United States. The media repeats this without checking with the US Department of Justice. In 1999, there were 115 so-called “stranger abductions” in the entire country. Most abductions are committed by a parent in a custody dispute. But the vast majority of missing children – almost 90% - are runaways who return home within 72 hours, but whose disappearance has been reported to the police.
In Canada, the RCMP runs a National Missing Children Service and the statistics here are remarkably similar to those in the US: “stranger abductions” account for very few of the missing children in Canada. Yet this angle to the Victoria Stafford is ignored or downplayed.
While crime rates in both the US and Canada continue to fall, crime reporting continues to rise in all media. The Stafford murder has come at a time when all media are looking for ways to boost ratings and circulation and all Toronto media are taking full advantage.
The sad story of Victoria Stafford will inevitably end, and the aftermath will be a heightened sense of our own precariousness and insecurity. What we will likely see more of is our media choosing to concentrate on crime reporting because of its powerful emotional resonance. In the news business, fear can drive the audience to buy newspapers and turn on the TV. So far this seems to be working.
Crime reporting is more cost-effective than other kinds of reporting and that’s especially true at a time when all media organizations are struggling to survive financially. So the ease of reporting has its own appeal: the daily routine where the police give out a briefing and reporters act as stenographers. It’s 9 to 5 journalism at its best. And it’s a proven winner because the kidnapping and murder of a little girl is as old as the Lindbergh Kidnapping. And we, in the audience, keep demanding that the same old story be retold.
The details of the case are horrifying enough; the media’s treatment of this story has only made it worse.