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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Media's Moral Panic Over Child Abductions

Kienan Hebert
A horrible story from British Columbia last week, but one with a very happy ending:

In a small town in southeastern BC called Sparwood, a 3 year old boy was snatched from his bedroom one night by a man who according to police, has a history of sex crimes.

People were in a justifiable state of anxiety as this is every parents' nightmare. But the outcome was as ideal as possible: the child, Kienan Hebert, was returned to his home a few days later, at 3 am by the same man who took him away. The alleged perpetrator was caught and has been charged. He will appear in court in six weeks after a psychiatric examination.

Randall Hopley
Randall Hopley, 46, was led into a crowded courtroom last week, where he was charged with abduction of a child, breaking and entering and breach of probation.

Outside the courtroom, a small crowd picketed. Signs called for the death penalty to be brought back for crimes against children.

The story was, as they say, too good to check: a beautiful little boy is taken from his bed by a seedy looking suspect who police say is a local drifter with a history of anti-social behavior including stalking, and sexual harassment.

While all right-thinking people can sleep a little easier now, there are a number of aspects to how the media handled this story that should keep most journalists and media managers awake at night:

This was an ideal media story. It allowed for the framing of this story in order to ramp up the public's fear of sexual predators. As usual, there was not a lot of context provided as to whether this was a single incident or a pattern? Without answering that question, the public's fear is only heightened.

Some questions remain: How was the child brought back to his parent's house at 3 am without anyone being at home? Where were the parents? Why was the house left unlocked?
Did the police make arrangements with the alleged kidnapper for the return of the child? Has this happened before in this area? Did the police handle the case well or poorly?

The media covered the story intensively but without much context about missing and abused children as a phenomenon.

In the US and increasingly in Canada, there is a growing level of hysteria on this issue. The
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Virginia has been funded by Congress to inform the public on this issue. But in many ways, the Center also promotes hysteria around this issue.

It claims that 800,000 children go missing in the US every year. But a closer look at the numbers reveals something else: There are around 100 children murdered by strangers in the US annually. That's shocking enough. But far from the epidemic of murderous abductions that many believe is ongoing. Most are kids who runaway return home within 72 hours. They have been reported missing to police or the FBI. But the media rarely reports their return.

A study in Slate showed that the so-called epidemic of abductions is largely a media myth that often serves the police to create that sense of moral panic. The media also is complicit in this especially when the victim is young, or female and blonde.

Those are the preferred victims who gain media attention.

Dozens of young native women have vanished while hitchhiking in northern British Columbia. But the media seem unwilling to spend any time or money on that issue.

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