Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Etan Patz and Why Child Abductions Make the News

Frequent quarterbacker Alan (who blogs over at Poor Mojo) shared a new Time column today about Etan Patz, the New York City first grader who disappeared in 1979 in New York City. The case is in the news lately because police in search of clues have recently been digging up a basement near where the boy lived. The column talks about the ways we have come to expect that we can prevent bad things from happening to our children, be they stranger abductions or broken bones.

Alan comments,
The fact is your child is far more likely to die young in a motor vehicle accident than to be kidnapped by a stranger and murdered. Tens of thousands of times more likely. But car accidents are quotidian and kidnappings are good copy and so we live in terror.
I agree with Alan. We tend to vastly overestimate the chances of a child being abducted by a stranger (about 115 cases a year, with 60% surviving and only 4% remaining unsolved) and vastly underestimate their chances of being killed in a car crash. And car crashes are, indeed, "quotidian" (which I had to look up -- it means mundane or every-day). I suppose that kidnappings also make good news stories. But that begs the question, why do they make good news stories? And why don't car crashes make good stories, too?

First of all, the news tends to cover things that are unusual. If they covered everything, we'd never do anything but watch the news. This is why there is a real dearth of "good news" on as well. Good news -- or at least neutral news -- is actually much more common than bad news. For the most part, if good news is about something common, we don't expect to see it covered. There are no stories about your kid's birthday party, or the lovely bike ride you took last weekend. That's common.

Second, we also expect to see news that affects us, and this is where it gets complicated. Most of us, because it is common, are aware of the risk of traffic accidents. We believe, however, that we can master those risks. Those accidents happen to someone else -- someone not being careful, not wearing a seat belt, under the influence or otherwise foolish. We know what is dangerous about driving a car, and we don't do those things.

We also believe that we can master the risks to our children. We give them bike helmets and put them in car seats. We don't let our toddlers have small toys. We take them to the doctor. For the most part, in fact, we are right. Kids get hurt, sure, but most kids don't get killed in this country.

Stranger abductions make the news because they bring to our attention something that we don't want to admit. About 115 times a year, parents just like us have kids who are abducted. Those parents also had helmets and car seats and medical care. They kept an eye on their kids as best as they could. And someone took them anyway. They didn't master the risk. We want to know what they could have done differently so we can.

Etan Patz's story is compelling because it has to do with a child, because it was the first case to appear on a milk carton, and because it is unsolved. It is also compelling because he disappeared walking to the school bus alone for the first time ever. We all make that decision for our kids at one point or another. We all know it's a risk. We don't read about Etan because it's sensational. We read because we want it to be different for our kid.


Colleen said...

It always makes me nuts, how people stress "stranger danger", and scare kids with it, when the number of kids snatched by strangers is so low (slightly more than two kids per state, per year)...and, as ar as I've been able to figure out, the number seems unchanged since the current set of parents were kids. If so, this teaching isn't helping....and the kids around here, who aren't allowed anywhere alone, not even to wait at the bus stop at the end of their own driveway, are being wrapped in cotton for no good reason.

It does seem, though, that we hear about more of these abductions than we used to. Is it because there is better communication, different societal attitudes, or is it my inaccurate perception?

Naomi Zikmund-Fisher said...

The Time article suggests that we've started hearing more about these cases because other risks have gone down. We have the idea now that when something happens to a kid, it probably could have been prevented, and in many cases (e.g. bicycle head injuries) we're probably right. Stranger abduction is one that we keep thinking we can stop, and we mostly do, but there are a handful that we can't, and we don't like that!

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