A feeding frenzy for the media

August 25, 2002|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON -- Relax.

There's been no explosion in the numbers of children abducted and murdered by strangers. In fact, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports a slight decline over this same time last year. Your children are not at increased risk.

If you're wondering why it seems that they are, I can give you the reason in two words: news media. Electronic news media, in particular. A lot of English majors with, literally, too much time on their hands. And a need to fill it by any means necessary.

Last year, you will recall, the filler of choice was sharks. A summer of highly publicized close encounters of the toothy kind left many of us convinced great whites had it in for us. The beasts were implicated in a series of maimings, bitings, muggings, carjackings and insider trading scandals. I, personally, was scared to answer the door after 10 at night for fear it might be a shark.

No less an authority than Time magazine even declared 2001 "The Summer of the Shark."

Do you know how many unprovoked attacks the "Summer of the Shark" produced? According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, there were 76. That's for the entire year, throughout the entire world -- and only a fraction were fatal. Plus, that number represented a slight downtick from the previous year.

Surely the sharks are still biting this summer, but they've been all but ignored by the news media. Shark attacks are so 2001. We've moved on. Welcome to the "Summer of the Kidnapped Kid."

Time hasn't run that headline yet, but I'm expecting it to any week now. It's the only thing missing from a summer during which we have been inundated with stories of children snatched from the bosom of home by persons unknown. And we are dutifully unnerved, so that the same folks who last year were feverishly copying down tips on how to avoid becoming shark chow are now looking for advice on how to keep their kids safe from human predators.

Which moves me to offer a warning in the interest of public safety. Forget "Beware of Sharks" or "Beware of Kidnappers." What you really need to do is "Beware of Media." If you allow us to, we are bound and determined to scare you to death.

Look, I'm not trying to belittle the suffering of those who have lost loved ones to kidnappers. Or, for that matter, those who have been attacked by sharks. No, my only purpose is to suggest that there's been an unintended byproduct of the all-news-all-the-time culture, an unexpected result of the news cycle that never ends. Namely, that an industry whose chief product used to be information has instead begun manufacturing a new thing: hysteria.

Or maybe it's been that way all along. Certainly, there was no shortage of screaming, panic-stricken headlines back in the days when Bill Hearst and Joe Pulitzer were the men in charge. Maybe some news magazine of the time even felt moved to declare 1908 "The Summer of the Suffragette."

Still, the gatekeepers of electronic news face a challenge undreamt of in the days when paper was the only news medium. Namely, they must feed a beast that is never sated, find a way to constantly fill endless hours of airspace. Even when there is slow news or no news.

So they get creative. They use stories they might not otherwise use. They repeat repeat repeat repeat. They discover trends that may or may not actually exist. And in the process, they create impressions that may or may not have any basis in fact.

There's nothing wrong with being aware that this child or that one has gone missing, nothing wrong with learning what precautions to take to safeguard children you love. But there is also nothing wrong with questioning hysteria, with seeking to understand whether the place media are leading us to is one to which we really ought to go.

I'd have more to say, but I have to call 911 now. Someone's knocking at my door and I'm thinking it's probably a shark.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He may be reached via e-mail at lpitts@herald .com or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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