While there has been a great deal of research published on media coverage of issues like rape, child abuse and domestic violence, very little has been written about the news coverage of child abductions or of violence against children more broadly. For example, though statistically rare, the news media disproportionally covers stories of young Caucasian girls being snatched from their middle-to-upper class homes in the middle of the night by male strangers, constructing a nationwide epidemic of “every parent’s worst nightmare”.
These kidnapping stories perpetuate powerful social myths about vulnerability in girlhood, hypersexuality and violence in masculinity, and deviance in strangers and “othered” groups. Through systematic treatment by the news media, the young girl victims that dominate media coverage not only embody important social lessons about family, childhood and sexuality, but also become a metaphor for a vulnerable, fragile nation suffering from a weakened economy and the cultural aftershock of terrorist attacks.
The high-profile cases in the U.S. that have dominated national headlines during recent times include the abduction and murder of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam from San Diego, the abduction and eventual return of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart from Salt Lake City, and the abduction and murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runion from Stanton, California. In each instance, the missing child was a young Caucasian girl from a middle to upper-class family who was taken from her home by a male stranger.
Because this article is concerned with the predominant myths perpetuated by kidnapping stories in the news, it is important to compare the types of kidnapping that garner the most media attention in the U.S. with the most common type of kidnapping according to crime statistics…
According to FBI crime statistics, kidnapping by strangers is rare and has been declining for years, constituting less that 100 cases per year. Familial abductions are far more common; more than 350,000 children are kidnapped by a parent each year. Based on information from the United States Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Juvenile Justice Bulletin, abductions constitute less than two percent of violent crimes against children and over two thirds of abductions are perpetuated by family members or acquaintances.
Regardless of what crime statistics show, the news media’s construction of kidnapping cases, of likely victims and suspects, can substantially influence public views of crime and impact policymaking. Reports show that the news media’s increased reporting on kidnapping in general, and its specific focus on rare stranger abductions, fosters the illusion of a crime wave. According to news accounts, parents frightened by the abduction reports were wary of letting their children out of the house. As one parent told Newsweek magazine, she could no longer let her 11-year-old daughter ride her bike in the daytime: “I turn on the TV and hear about dead little girls”. These reports of high-profile child abductions not only led to widespread fear, but also pushed lawmakers to fund and implement nationwide search programs like Amber Alert.
By over-publicizing the rarest types of crimes by male strangers—whether it be rape, murder or kidnapping—the media can fabricate epidemics which serve as false warnings to women and young girls. Through the deployment of myth, crime stories teach important moral lessons and mark boundaries of social control. Kidnapping stories in particular represent “how our culture views children, parenthood, and sexuality and how it defines strangers, community and crime”.
Crime and Panic: Framing and Myth in News Narratives
News does more than report events; like other cultural forms it tells stories and teaches important social lessons. News is a narrative, literary form that provides the guiding myths which shape our conception of the world and serve as important instruments of social control. News cannot be expected to accurately represent reality or everyday life. Newsmakers are governed by news values that dictate that the most extraordinary, dramatic and tragic elements of stories will be emphasized.
However, in order for abnormal occurrences to make sense, they must be given meaning; otherwise, they remain random, isolated events. To this end, reporters organize events around major societal themes or conflicts trough a process of framing that offers definitions of social reality. Newsmakers use societal myths to structure stories in order to give meaning to incredible events, to explain that which cannot be explained and to reaffirm values and beliefs, especially when those values and beliefs are challenged.
Societies rely on negotiations of stability and crisis to survive, so myths function to simplify and maintain social boundaries. Myth is a powerful cultural force that has turned reality inside out, has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature, so it is in a literal sense “depoliticized speech”. Myth cannot simply sustain itself by replaying the past, as new meanings arise from converged discourses. Myth is not an innocent language, but one that picks up existing signs and their connotations, and orders them purposefully to play a particular social role”.
Stories about crime and deviance are especially instructive because they mark the transgression of normative boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behavior in society. In doing so, crime coverage also maintains
boundaries of class, race, sexuality, and gender. For example, tabloid news magazine shows, which target working class audiences, are more likely to cover crimes that illustrate middle and upper class deviance, while traditional news magazine programs more often show the upper class as victims of crime by lower class criminals. Thus, the news media’s focus on lower class suspects snatching upper class victims offers an opportunity to explore class distinctions in kidnapping narratives.
Likewise, crime news is filled with incarnations of the virgin/vamp myth. Crime coverage constructs weak female victims who may have enticed male perpetrators to attack them. In the case of child abductions involving teenagers such as Elizabeth Smart, speculations about whether she invited sexual attention from her attacker or chose to stay with him rather than escape builds on myths that girls are “asking for it” when they are kidnapped. Victims must conform to gender norms in order to be granted legitimacy as victims.
Because crime news dramatizes and exaggerates, reporting of crime is out of sync with actual police statistics, both in terms of the amount of crime reported and the types of crimes reported. Both print and television news media over represent the relative frequency of violent crimes, especially murder, when compared with FBI statistics, and public perceptions of crime more closely mirror media representations than police statistics. Others have shown that the most unusual crimes, especially homicides, are over represented and that the most newsworthy murders are those involving whites (either as suspects or victims) where the suspect is male and the victim is a woman, child or elderly person. The differential treatment of crime reporting based on race, gender, class and age is not random. Rather, this recurring pattern of news that highlight certain kinds of criminals and victims while downplaying others transmit daily messages about whose behavior matters most in society.
The process of framing, of giving meaning to seemingly isolated incidences, also helps explain how independent crimes take on the illusion of a “crime wave.” Journalists and editors organize individual cases around themes as a way to synthesize vast raw materials. The interactions among news organizations reporting on the same crimes, and the consistency with which the crimes are reported, then creates a crime wave. Furthermore, journalists feel pressure to seek out and “discover” new types of unusual crimes, at which point the news media become saturated with stories about these rare occurrences. The process of developing journalistic “story shorthand” or “branding stories” results in the type of naming (i.e. “summer of child abductions”) that frames isolated incidents as cultural phenomena.
Crime “epidemics” and “moral panic” have throughout history been well established as cyclical and intertwined with socio-economic conditions. By “amplifying” either trivial (vandalism) or serious (kidnapping) crimes, news media manufacture sensationalized coverage that prompts audience engagement and incites public outrage. Moral panics, once the unintended outcome of journalistic practice, seem to have become a goal. Moral panics about child sexual abuse signal new forms of neo-liberal governmentality that have emerged to reconcile the rift between the sexual commodification of girls, public morality, and heterosexual paedophilic desire that play out in news media. The influence of moral panics, particularly involving children, on policies, laws, and organizations has been significant. And two specific groups – child victims and sexual predators – have long been at the heart of moral panics, legislation, and media narratives.
Clear patterns have emerged in the neither random nor representative abduction cases that have garnered the most attention in U.S. press coverage, in particular in USA Today: The victim is likely to be a young female from a middle-upper class neighborhood who was abducted from her home by a male, low-class “stranger.” Furthermore, the exaggeration of victims as female and suspects as male in “the nation’s newspaper” suggests that the stories achieving national prominence are those that successfully perpetuate the myth of predatory males abducting young girls. Also, not all young girls that get abducted have the same degree of newsworthiness; media workers grant that images of “cute teenage girls” is part of the marketing strategy used by news stations to attract audiences and garner higher ratings.
The coverage of child abductions has real consequences for families of missing children; kidnapped children who receive widespread publicity in the mass media are much more likely to be returned home safely and quickly, whereas those whose kidnappings go unreported are rarely found.
In addition, the differences between regionally-targeted coverage and the more popular, nationally-targeted coverage suggests that national coverage exaggerates the myth of low class male vagrants snatching girls from stable suburban homes. This finding becomes significant when considering that the class of the suspect is related to the class of the target audience. The mainstream newspapers tend to reach an audience of older, middle to upper class, Caucasian readers, while the content perpetuates the image of low class criminals victimizing the middle class. Thus, child abduction narratives help to maintain class boundaries by “othering” members of the lower class.
Class distinctions are used to show how kidnappers come from a different world than that of victimized families. By stressing these “differences,” U.S. media reports may create perceptions that abductors are underclass vagrants, when in reality most kidnappings are committed by a family member or someone within the family’s social circle.
Racial identity is another common marker used to further differentiate victims and suspects. Media coverage routinely ignores the problem of missing minority children, especially if they are taken from lower income urban neighborhoods where crime is assumed “normal.” For example, 2-year-old Jahi Turner was kidnapped in San Diego, and 7-year-old Alexis Patterson from Milwaukee was abducted when walking home from school. Both kids were black. While their cases generated a great deal of local media attention, they did not rise to the level of national media obsession like the cases of Smart, Van Dam and Runion, the middle to upper-class Caucasian girls.
The contradiction of showing females as more sexual (revealing sexual details about the victim) yet also “tougher” reveals a specific nuance in the narratives of child abductions. Because crime news focuses on the rare, it is perhaps “newsworthy” for girls to exhibit toughness. The finding that young girls were more likely to be sexualized in the news media is consistent with research contending that the media promotes girlhood sexuality even as it attempts to deny and protect it. Girlhood elicits our collective “protective response” toward childhood, symbolizing desires to protect family life, community, and national identity more broadly.
In contrast, the predatory male abductor elicits our collective fear and hostility. While the number of stranger abductions is in fact declining, the media has played-up the theme of “stranger danger,” linked together individual yet unrelated cases which implied a broader stranger kidnapping “trend” or epidemic, and were ambiguous about reporting the relationship of the suspect to the victim (implying stranger). These news reports show how the pedophile once again becomes a popular social construct during times of economic and social upheaval.
Furthermore, by over publicizing crimes by male strangers—whether it be rape, murder or kidnapping—the media may create false warnings to women and young girls. Although family members perpetrate most violence against women, media reports stress the “extraordinary” crimes where the stranger is the culprit.
By quantifying the dominant themes used by newspapers to tell stories of child abductions, narrative devices can be uncovered which have the potential to teach powerful social lessons about family, community, strangers, girlhood and nationality. In the 1990s kidnapping reporting centered on parental abductions, representing distrust of the court system and family structures. In the 2000s, U.S. mainstream news media fixated on rare but dramatic stories of helpless young girls disappearing from culturally recognized “safe havens” at the hands of predatory male strangers.
Within the cultural context of post-September 11 America, media stories of fragile, vulnerable, violated girls become metaphors for a fragile, vulnerable, violated nation. Girls studies scholars have long noted that narratives of girlhood carried out in the media and popular culture come to signify the endangered purity of the nation more broadly. Deeply embedded cultural myths like cowboy masculinity and puritan sexuality pervade contemporary media frames during times of national crises. Specifically, in the cultural aftershocks of the terrorist attacks, U.S. media sustained narratives of idealized girls and women as fragile virgins or mothers, objects in need of protection by and from men.
By uncovering patterns in the journalistic selection of young female victims “snatched” from their homes and the narrative framing devices used to tell their stories, the hidden agenda is brought out into the light. By “othering” the kidnapper / pedophile as low-class and a stranger, and reinscribing family values, community cohesion and patriotism, these kidnapping stories reflect a post-9/11 American society struggling to protect its families and its nation.
Source: Every parent’s worst nightmare: Myths of child abductions in US news. Journal of Children and Media, 5(2), 147-163 (2011).