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The Missing Kids Obsession

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
American children at the beginning of the 21st century are surely the safest children in the history of the species. Juvenile mortality has never been lower. Threats from disease, starvation, violence, natural disaster and exploitation are fewer than at any prior time in history or any almost any other place in the world now.

So why is the American attention span so fixed on nightmares of missing or murdered children? Why are we in the media so attentive to that preoccupation or fascination?

There must be something deeper going on. What is it?

In the past 26 years, there have been waves of morbid fascination and occasional hysteria over crimes involving ordinary children, as distinct from celebrity crimes like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. The case of Etan Patz, a boy who went missing in New York on May 25, 1979, was perhaps the first long-running story of this sort that grabbed national attention. In July, 1981, the head of a boy named Adam Walsh was discovered after he had been missing for about three weeks. His father, John Walsh, became the first celebrity victim and went on to host "America's Most Wanted."

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Advocates founded The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in 1984, just in time to give stories, statistics and soundbites to the burgeoning cable news business. There was enormous controversy for a while about whether the missing children phenomenon was being hyped and exploited. But another cycle of stories and obsession came along in 1993 with the case of Polly Klaas and then, in 1994, Megan Kanka, whose story inspired the Megan's Laws around the country.

Once again, these stories are prominent in the news and around the water cooler. For the past few weeks, the attention has been on Natalee Holloway in Aruba and Shasta and Dylan Groene in Idaho. Earlier this year there were the three kids found in a car trunk in Camden, N.J.; Brennan Hawkins, the lost Utah boy Scout; Sarah Lunde and Jessica Lunsford, two little girls who were abducted and murdered in Florida, and Katie Collman, a 10 year-old Indiana girl who was missing for a week before her body was found.

Even if interest in these types of stories is cyclical, this has been a long run.

All this goes on as all available evidence shows a decline in criminal abductions of children and in homicides.

The most comprehensive accountings of the realities of crimes involving children come from a series of studies by the Justice Department called the "National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children."

The latest study, released last December, found that between 1988 and 1999, there were no increases in family abductions or runaways and decreases in the numbers of children who were "lost, injured or otherwise missing" - that is, who may have been victims of foul play. The study noted that "the environment affecting children - possibly the economic resources available for their care, the quality of family life and parental attention, availability of social and medical services, and community safety and cohesion - has not worsened and have improved." That's good news, right?

The same set of studies said that in 1999, 115 children were the victims of the most serious, long-term non-family abductions called "stereotypical kidnappings. That's not a lot in a country of 250 million.

On other fronts, the news is also good. The Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that the number of substantiated child sexual abuse cases "dropped by a remarkable 40 percent between 1992 and 2000." It concluded that this was no statistical fluke and wasn't caused by any bureaucratic breakdown in the monitoring and detecting of abuse. It was real.

Similarly, the juvenile homicide rate reached a 20-year low in 2000. In 1993, 2,880 youths were murdered; in 2000, 1,610, a drop of 47 percent in just seven years. Again, that's good news.


So why all the bad news?

A true but very incomplete and somewhat superficial answer is that outfits like CBSNews.com cover these stories and feature them prominently. And we do. But since technology allows us to know with great precision what gets read on the Web, I can also report that these stories collect a tremendous number of eyeballs no matter how we play them. We do not manufacture the interest. I trust cable networks and newspapers have the same findings. Some believe that all the attention to the issue has led to the decrease in its incidence, but there's no hard evidence of that.

The number of crimes, as we've seen, has gone down. Coverage, at least lately, has gone up. Interest in them has gone up. I think there is more at work than just a growing tabloid ethos in the news business, although I willingly concede that's part of it. If viewers were not deeply and repetitively drawn to stories of child crime, we wouldn't pay so much attention - trust me. We don't like to do these stories, we try to put them in perspective, and we deserve a fair share of blame.

Still, we're back to the deeper why: why are we - the media, the people - so hooked on these scary stories? And why right now, specifically? I'll offer three theories.

Writer Gregg Easterbrook has devoted an entire book, "The Progress Paradox," to trying to figure out why today's Americans are so unhappy when objective circumstances have never been better. He has a notion he calls "headline-amplified anxiety." Once upon a time, people feared only what they encountered firsthand: tornadoes, infections or lions. Now we fear what we see pictures of in our living rooms: SARS in China, anthrax, terrorism, bird flu, Ebola virus, serial killers and kidnappers.

The fact that the real threats have lessened gives the mind spare time for imagining more obscure threats. He cites a fascinating study that shows the more a person watches television, the more that person is likely to overestimate how much crime there is or believe that crime is increasing when in fact it is decreasing.

But why is this happening now more than, say, ten years ago? (And I believe it is; others may disagree.) The obvious answer is 9/11. Between Laci Petersen, Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Smart, Carlie Brucia, Danielle Van Dam and the ever fascinating JonBenet Ramsey saga, there has been almost no time since 9/11 when a story about a missing, murdered or abused child wasn't in headlines, on the Web sites and filling air time.

Many polls have shown increased general fear and anxiety since 9/11. Terrorism is an amorphous and anonymous thing. The most popular televsion shows now are the "C.S.I." shows that get into incredible gory detail about the minutia of crimes scenes and autopsies. That's entertainment?

It's understandable that people attach vague, visceral anxiety to something specific - their child, grandchild, niece, nephew or neighbor.

A doctor who treats patients in Washington - a place where fear of terrorism is high - offered another layer of possible explanation. He believes many parents (and grandparents) feel anxiety about "outsourcing" so much parenting.

As Americans work harder, more families have two earners. That means kids are shunted off to organized activities, sports, day care and that neighborhoods aren't watched over by at-home parents. Super-moms and uber-dads work all week and slavishly get kids to their weekend activities. But parents, this doctor has found, feel less in control of their children and more guilty. This makes the morbid fascination with real life versions of their own nightmares more understandable.

Whatever the cause, politicians, the news media, marketers and Hollywood can prey on these fears and exploit them. And that is something that can be fixed.



Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.
By Dick Meyer

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