BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week Newsweek had the story When Children Go Missing, but it added this comforting qualifier: take heart -- this is not an epidemic. Last season's summer of shark attacks has made way for this season's abducted children, but most reports are careful to note that relatively few - maybe a hundred this year -will be taken by strangers -- a horrendous figure but far less than generally believed. And it hasn't stopped our collective anxiety, reflected in this week's episode of Comedy Central's South Park. [CLIP FROM SOUTH PARK PLAYS]
MAN: Sit down and have some coffee, son.
CHILD: [SLURPS COFFEE].
MAN: Tweek [sp?], there's starting to be a lot of reports on the news about children being abducted, and we thought we should talk.
CHILD: I, I saw! [MAKING SCARED SOUND]
WOMAN: You know never to talk to strangers, right, Tweek. You can't trust anybody.
CHILD: Oh, God! [CRINGES]
MAN: Now, we don't want to alarm you son, but we've installed new locks on your bedroom windows and door. It's important for you to know never to unlock them at night for anyone except your mother and I.
CHILD: Oh, Jesus! [CRINGES]
WOMAN: It's just a precaution, Sweetie. Probably nothing will ever happen.
BOB GARFIELD: But that's a cartoon. We sent out associate product Katya Rogers to find out what real people feel on the street during lunchtime in lower Manhattan. [AMBIENT SOUND, TRAFFIC, ETC.]
KATYA ROGERS: Do you have a rough idea of how many kids are abducted by strangers every year?
MAN: 1700 in the United States.
WOMAN: 200 a day?
WOMAN: I would say a hundred thousand within a year.
KATYA ROGERS: Okay, I'm going to tell you how many really are.
WOMAN: How many?
KATYA ROGERS: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says that this year there'll be around a hundred children kidnapped by strangers.
WOMAN: If you would have said maybe within a day, I would accept that answer. But within a year, it sounds too low. You hear things on the news practically every day! And if you can hear 7 days a week on the news and we're talking about a year?! The number sounds too low!
KATYA ROGERS: How many kids do you think are abducted by strangers a year?
WOMAN: I don't know. 23 hundred?
KATYA ROGERS: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children this year projects there's going to be around a hundred.
WOMAN: You hate to hear that news, and-- you know we hear-- hate to hear about one child, so -- but I'm just glad the figures are less than what I thought.
WOMAN: I know it's increasing here lately. Some, like some kind of epidemic sickness.
KATYA ROGERS: Like the Elizabeth Smart, Samantha Runnion you think--
WOMAN: Mm-hm. Mm-hm. Yeah.
KATYA ROGERS: So-- would you be surprised if you knew that it's actually around a hundred?
WOMAN: I think maybe the media's making too much out of it then. It goes out of your mind if it's not in the media every day. You tend to focus on other things - the war, you know, your rent. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD:Lou Kilzer is an investigative reporter for the Rocky Mountain News. In 1985 he and colleague Diana Griego [sp?] wrote about the hysteria surrounding inflated numbers of missing children. Their work won the Denver Post a Pulitzer Prize. Lou, welcome to On the Media.
LOUIS KILZER: Glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: We've just heard from some New Yorkers who--guesstimated the number of abducted kids a year to be in the thousands. Deja vu for you?
LOUIS KILZER: Kind of. When I was thinking about coming on the program I thought back to what it was like in 1984 and '85, and here in Denver parents were actually lining up around the block to get into Safeway Stores to have their children fingerprinted for when they were abducted, their remains could be identified that way, and-- all the milk cartons had missing children. In the buses there were posters of missing children. There, there was just a deep and unreasonable fear at that time, and this time I don't see that happening.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's just go back to '84 and '85 for a moment.
LOUIS KILZER: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD:There were groups warning at that time that a million and a half kids were disappearing every year and that 50,000 children were kidnapped by strangers; that 4,000 kids in the United States were murdered. Were those numbers actually being disseminated, and by whom?
LOUIS KILZER: The - well [LAUGHS] - they, they were being disseminated by various groups around the country and also by the media. They actually - the 1.5 million that, that you used - that was kind of on the conservative side on some of the reports. There was a lady in Florida that was reporting and it was picked up in the press that there were 2.5 million children that were vanishing every year in the United States. I remember calling the lady up and -- once we had solid figures -- and saying how can you say this? And her comment to me was well just because we say they vanished doesn't mean they don't re-appear. And it was interesting how often people in my profession simply picked up these figures without really thinking about them, because they were somewhat illogical, and repeated them. The FBI prints every month or at least did then the number of missing children reports. Then if you added up all the missing children reports for a year you would come up with a pretty large figure -- not 1.5 million but a large figure. But what the groups weren't doing, and this is -- it's embarrassingly simply to have analyzed this -- was that there is another column next to the number of missing children reports; that is of children that were reported missing that were discovered, and if you balance those figures, you came out with a, with a fairly small number, and of the missing children, I believe we said 94 or 95 percent of them were runaways. Most of the others when there was a, quote, "abduction" it was a parental abduction in a, in a custody dispute. There was a vanishingly small number that were actually missing through a stranger abduction.
BOB GARFIELD:I guess the silver lining to all of the mis-reporting 16, 17 years ago was that it did bring attention to the problem of parental abductions, and there has been some legislation passed in the intervening time making it more difficult for one spouse to spirit a child away from another. But tell me what the negative effects of this kind of mass hysteria were.
LOUIS KILZER: Well we actually got around to calling up Dr. Spock on that issue, and, and other child psychologists. Dr. Spock said that children have a particularly morbid imagination and they knew what was happening when they were being fingerprinted, and, and they were extrapolating from that. I'll tell you this story. My son was very young at the time, and he said he wanted to go and find the missing children. And I was kind of stunned and, and asked him where would you find them? And he said well they're going to be in the dumpsters. I'd been working on the numbers, Diane and I, but at that point it really sunk in what the possible consequences were. I mean my son was thinking that children are being dispensed in dumpsters throughout Denver, and it simply was not the case. They called our story in 1985 "the nation's largest correction." I mean it was a paper saying well we've all been wrong including the Denver Post, which I was writing for. I think the media having seen those reports and that that report won the public service Pulitzer Prize, the media will be reluctant to repeat those figures or to get too out of hand -- at least I hope so.
BOB GARFIELD:Can you imagine back in 1984 and '85 when we were awash in flyers and milk cartons with little kids' pictures staring back at us -what would have happened if there were 4 cable news networks then?
LOUIS KILZER: I think it would have been catastrophic. It would have -- it's hard to imagine that things could have gotten more hysterical. No. That was a, that would be a, a nightmare meltdown scenario. Hopefully someone would have blown the whistle earlier, but sometimes in the din the whistle can't be heard. In 1985 it was heard. Today I doubt it.
BOB GARFIELD: Lou Kilzer, thank you very much.
LOUIS KILZER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Lou Kilzer is an investigative reporter for the Rocky Mountain News. [MUSIC]