Media coverage of this summer’s rash of kidnappings has been both exaggerated and unnecessary. In a year where kidnappings are actually down by more than 4 percent, media coverage is up, so much so that one can hardly flip through cable channels without catching a “Breaking News” story on CNN or a “FOX News Alert” as they show another missing child’s photograph over and over again. Such coverage is essentially worthless and borders on sensationalistic.
According to the values journalists consider when they determine what stories are worth publicity, a main consideration is “novelty.” Yet the only thing novel about this so-called Summer of Kidnappings is that fewer children have been kidnapped this summer than last summer. Yet, a year ago such inordinate concern was nonexistent. Instead, cable news networks were concerned about where Gary Condit was going to eat that day.
Granted, such is the nature of television news. Audiences watch breaking news stories. They watch when they believe that what they’re watching is vitally important. These are dangerous enough ingredients by themselves, but when one adds the ratings war between CNN and Fox News and the equally heated war between cable and the Big Four networks, it’s a recipe for sensationalism and hyperbole.
This is what we have been watching all summer. Children not being kidnapped is certainly not breaking news material. Neither are motorists obeying the law or politicians being faithful to their wives. So car chases, scandal and kidnappings are treated to constant news coverage even though they don’t deserve it.
Kidnappings are indeed news stories, but they are local news stories. Residents in Maine and California certainly did not need to hear about a kidnapping in Abilene, nor could Abilenians do a thing to stop a kidnapper in Utah. Local newscasts and the AMBER Alert are much more adept to handle such cases.
But such reasoning does not prevail in the fast-paced, hard-edged, ratings-driven world of television news. Instead, we were treated to a summer where parents made their children stay inside because of an exaggerated fear.
If perception is reality, then America’s children were in mortal danger this summer-even though they were safer. Such a perception is a shame to journalism that is supposed to be fair, balanced and unbiased.