Snatched: gender, class and media Constructions
of "the summer of child abductions"
Submission to the AEJMC 2003 Convention
Commission on the Status of Women
Ph.D. Student, Indiana University
724 Eastside Drive
Bloomington, IN 47401
[log in to unmask]
Snatched: gender, class and media Constructions
of "the summer of child abductions"
This study examines how the news media used assumptions about gender and
class identities to construct the major "epidemic" of child kidnappings
during the summer of 2002. Through a textual analysis of articles that
appeared in USA Today and Newsweek magazine, this paper shows how media
coverage of kidnappings reflects societal constructions of family,
childhood and sexuality. In doing so, the media play off of—and contribute
to—constructions of vulnerability in girlhood, and sexual deviance and
violence in masculinity.
Snatched: gender, class and media Constructions
of "the summer of child abductions"
In addition to fears of future terrorist attacks, another fear spread
throughout American towns, cities and suburbs during the summer of 2002.
Perpetuated by a barrage of news stories about child abduction cases, many
Americans began to feel, as parent Sheila Joyner said, that 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," she told Newsweek magazine
(Murr, 2002, p. 38).
Joyner wasn't alone in what she saw splashed across the evening news. In
addition to the "war on terror," the other major event that dominated the
news agenda this summer was child abductions. At a time when Americans were
trying to protect their nation from hostile invaders, they were also
struggling to protect their homes from hostile strangers, threatening to
destroy their children and the sanctity of family life. The news media's
incessant focus on the string of high-profile child abductions not only
caused something of a nationwide moral panic, but also left lawmakers
scrambling to put solutions like Amber Alert in place. It was, or at least
it seemed to be, "the summer of child abductions" (Alter, 2002)
In general, according to media reports, it was a dangerous time to be a kid
in America. While young girls were being snatched from their bedrooms,
young boys were being sexually molested by one of our most sacred
institutions, the Catholic Church. At the same time the nation was put on
"high alert" of future terrorist acts, it seemed that American notions of
childhood, family life and sexuality were at risk as well. Constructions of
abused, fragile, violated children became synonymous with a fragile nation,
suffering from a weakened economy and the cultural aftershock of terrorist
But the abductions that made the news this summer, such as the
disappearance and death of 5-year old Samatha Runion and 14-year-old
Elizabeth Smart, were not random or representative cases. Clear patterns
emerged in the cases that garnered the most attention: the missing child
was always a young Caucasian girl from a middle- to upper-class family who
was abducted (often rather dramatically) by a stranger. While these cases
make great news stories, in reality this type of kidnapping by strangers is
very rare and is declining—constituting less than 100 cases per year
(Crary, 2002). Meanwhile, the more than 350,000 children who are kidnapped
by a parent each year go virtually unreported. Likewise, the media ignore
the problem of missing minority children, especially if they are taken from
lower income, urban neighborhoods where crime is assumed "normal."
This paper is primarily concerned with representations of gender and class
in news media reporting of violence against women and children. Moreover,
this paper builds on the premise that news media coverage of social
issues—such as drug abuse, homelessness, domestic violence and child
abuse—captures and reflects the major social, political and economic
tensions of the time. The specific purpose of this study is to examine how
the news media used assumptions about gender and class identities to
construct the major "epidemic" of child kidnappings during the summer of 2002.
Drawing from Cynthia Carter's use of the "extraordinary" and the "ordinary"
in reporting of sexual violence against women, this study will examine how
the child abductions that made the news were the "extraordinary" ones—the
shocking, dramatic stranger abductions of mainly white, middle class girls.
Likewise, the more "ordinary" child abductions of kidnappings by parents
are normalized and therefore not seen as newsworthy. In doing so, the media
play off of—and contribute to—constructions of vulnerability in girlhood,
and sexual deviance and violence in masculinity. The effect may be to warn
parents and especially young girls to fear male strangers—to culturally
socialize them into believing at a very early age they are the likely
victims of violent crime.
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 coverage of child abductions and even coverage of
violence against children more broadly. On the topic of media and violence
against children, most pieces are in the media effects tradition and deal
with the impact of media (usually television) on children—for example,
studies which show watching violent television carton increases violent
tendencies in children. Very little has been done on how media cover
children who are victims of violence. To date, most research has primarily
been focused on children as potential aggressors and perpetrators of
violence when they consume too much of the "wrong kind" of media (such as
violent cartoons, crime dramas or scary movies).
The study of how news media cover child abductions is thus a relatively new
and important area of research. This study is important because 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 (Crary, 2002; Fass, 1997,
p. 234). Additionally, through a textual analysis of articles that appeared
in USA Today and Newsweek magazine, this paper will show how media coverage
of child kidnappings reflects societal constructions of gender-related
issues like family, childhood and sexuality.
Background: The kidnapped and the kidnapper
Before examining previous literature on media coverage of violence against
women and children, it is first important to provide background information
on the major abduction cases that filled the headlines for the period under
study. During the summer of 2002, from May through August, mainstream media
coverage of child abductions was primarily dominated by three cases, which
I will briefly outline here.
The first girl to go missing was 7-year-old Danielle van Dam from San Diego
who disappeared from her bed around 10 p.m. on February 1, 2002. Her body
was found on February 27. A 50-year-old neighbor, David Westerfield, was
convicted of her kidnapping and murder on August 22. Initially, this case
seems to fall too early in the news cycle for this sample, which includes
May through August. However, Danielle's case received increased coverage in
the summer months since most reports tied her case to the disappearance of
the other two girls. Additionally, the case received attention since her
kidnapper's trial took place during this time period.
The second "headline" girl to go missing, and the one to receive the most
media attention in the articles under study, was 14-year-old Elizabeth
Smart from Salt Lake City, Utah. Elizabeth was abducted from her bedroom
at gunpoint on June 5, 2002 in the middle of the night. The Smarts live in
7-bedroom mansion in an affluent suburb. Elizabeth's 9-year-old sister was
sleeping beside her when Elizabeth was taken. Out of fear, her sister
complied with the gunman's request and did not wake her parents until two
hours later (he threatened to harm Elizabeth if she said anything). In
July, police arrested suspect Richard Albert Ricci, a 48-year-old handyman
who had worked for the Smarts. Ricci suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and
died in August while in jail. This March, in an unusual turn of events,
Elizabeth was discovered nearly nine months after her abduction when
several tips sent police to the home of Brian Mitchell and Wanda Barzee.
Though details of the case are still emerging, initial police reports
suggest that Elizabeth was "brainwashed" by her abductors since she did not
try to escape though she had several opportunities to (Murphy, 2003).
Mitchell, 49, had been a handyman for the Smarts, and allegedly kidnapped
Elizabeth in hopes of making her the first of seven new brides.
The third case was the abduction of 5-year-old Samantha Runion from
Stanton, California. Samantha disappeared on July 15 while she was playing
a game of Clue with a friend outside her home. She left with a man who said
he needed help finding his dog. Her body was discovered the next day by two
hang gliders who stumbled upon her in the national forest by Riverside. Her
body has found bruised and naked, laid out in a provocative way by a major
highway, as if daring FBI profilers to find him (Murr, 2002). Police later
charged Alejandro Avila, 27, with murder.
While little research has been done on the coverage of kidnappings, many
authors have written about constructions of violence against women, which
provide an important backdrop for this discussion. Some scholars have
written about how the most unusual and dramatic crimes toward women and
children are over-represented in the news media. In her study on sexual
violence in the UK tabloid press, Carter (1998) argues that an unwarranted
amount of attention is focused on the rarest crimes such as stranger rape,
while the more common incidents of familial abuse are downplayed. News
values act in a hierarchical way to determine that the most newsworthy
crimes are those in which suspects are male, the crime ends in murder, and
the victims are middle-class females, children or elderly (p. 223).
Compared to crime statistics, this type of violent crime is far from
typical, but it is nonetheless over-represented in the media. For example,
while the murder of females is reported more often, men are most likely to
be the victims of homicide (p. 228). Furthermore, Carter argues that
journalists feel pressure to seek out and create new types of unusual
crimes. As a result:
This daily diet of representations of the most brutal forms of sexual
violence constructs the world outside as well as inside the front door as
highly dangerous places for women and girls, one in which sex crimes have
become an ordinary, taken-for-granted feature of everyday life (1998, p. 231)
Since young girls are the most reported victims of the modern-day child
abduction, it is also important to examine how the seemingly contradictory
representations of vulnerability and sexuality play a part in our
constructions of girlhood. For example, Hartley (1998) explores the media's
dual, contradictory function of celebrating and sexualizing girlhood, and
at the same time policing youth sexuality. He argues the young girl has
emerged as an important figure in mainstream mass media in an effort to
attract young female audiences—a phenomenon he terms "juvenation."
Juveniles have also become the subject of an unprecedented amount of hard
news reporting on youth sexuality, teenage pregnancy, pedophilia, child
pornography and anorexia (1998, p. 53). The juvenation of the modern news
media, and specifically the reporting on people ages 8-18, has become "the
most intense site of media concern, especially for girls" (p. 53).
Problems arise when the media work to mark boundaries between childhood and
adulthood. In policing juvenile behavior and defining what is appropriate
for pre-pubescents, the media casts juveniles as outsiders, in the separate
world of "Theydom." At the same time, however, their innocence and even
attractiveness is celebrated by adults as part of our world of "Wedom."
Hartley explains how these distinctions impact the coverage of child
victims like JonBenet Ramsey:
Children who are destroyed or shamed by their adult-like characteristics
mark the boundary of adulthood, and put children firmly outside of it, but
the same children are celebrated as the very essence of Wedom in their
attractiveness, which cannot avoid eroticisation, since it seems equally a
'law' that photographs of child-victims receive the widest and most
sustained coverage, and are printed in the largest format, when they show
the most attractive girls (1998, p. 57).
While Harley (1998) examines how innocence and sexuality play a part in the
construction of girlhood, still other authors have addressed how fears
about sexuality impact portrayals of sexual violence against children. In
her book "Harmful to Minors," Levine (2002) agues the media over exaggerate
teenage sexuality in general and the "epidemic" of pedophilia specifically.
Much of our anxiety and fear is not based on the actual incidence of the
crime, she argues, but on a gendered power structure: "popular sexual fears
cluster around the most vulnerable: women and children" (p. xxiii). News
organizations virtually construct widespread panic and hysteria about
childhood sexual deviance by reporting on topics such as teen sex and
pregnancy, pedophilia and kiddie porn. However, Levine (2002) finds little
evidence to support an increase in any of these "problems." For example,
teen sex rates have remained fairly stable since the 1950s (p. xxiv).
Levine (2002) specifically discusses the "pedophile panic" as a cultural
construction carried out by mass media. She argues the figure of the
pedophile is more myth than reality. There has been no actual increase in
sexual crimes against children, and the typical stranger abduction seen in
the news is incredibly rare (p. 32). The vast majority of missing children
(95%) are runaways or are abducted by a parent (p. 24). Moreover, as
previously noted, most sexual abuse occurs inside the family, not by strangers.
So why is the myth of the pedophile such a popular construction in our
culture? Like Hartley (1998), Levine (2002) agues our society celebrates
and sexualizes youth culture at the same time it seeks to protect and
police it. "We relish our erotic attraction to children" in that we
celebrate child beauty pageants and the sexiness is the teenage body, but
"we also find that attraction abhorrent" (p. 26). We take our own
self-disgust is cast outward onto the figure of the pedophile: "a monster
to hate, hunt down and punish" (p. 27).
This sex monster is not a static, ever-present figure. It tends to rear its
ugly head during times of economic and social upheaval when a culture feels
it must hang onto its jobs, its family and its children (Levine, 2002, p.
29). For example, constructions of the pedophile arose during the
Depression when economic hardship challenged masculinity and gender roles.
The post-WWII era was characterized by a fear of homosexuality, which was
often equated with pedophilia. Again news media played off these fears, and
reports of pedophilia increased (p. 31).
Much like the construction of the pedophile, Fass argues in her book
"Kidnapped: Child Abductions in America," that reporting of child
adductions represents "how our culture views children, parenthood, and
sexuality and how it defines strangers, community and crime" (1997, p. 8).
Through historical analysis, she shows decade by decade how the
highly-publicized kidnapping cases represented and help define the larger
social issues of their time. For example, ransom kidnappings that dominated
news coverage in the 1930s, like the abduction of Charles Lindbergh's son,
came to symbolize the civic decay of that period, the fear of gang and
mafia crime, and the threat of economic disparity brought on by the
Depression. When the nuclear family came under siege in the 1970s and '80s,
the major kidnapping stories focused on parental kidnapping, representing
the fear of the family being ripped apart, as well as distrust of the
family court system. The 1990s saw stories focused on parental kidnapping,
familial abuse as well as stranger abductions, representing a distrust of
social and as well as political institutions (the family and the courts).
Fass argues that while "stranger danger" is the stereotypical kidnapping
case media fixate on, it is not by any means the most common (p. 245). She
asserts that kidnappings in modern mass media have evolved from a social
problem into something of a national pastime, a source for "daily
sensationalism" (p. 19). Kidnappings have become an amusement park thrill
ride that blend news with infotainment and TV dramas (played out in TV
shows like America's Most Wanted and Law & Order). Like others, Fass also
argues the media symbolize a "painful contradiction of child sexual
exploitation." Modern mass media commodify childhood and commercially
exploit children, especially those who are murder victims, just as our
popular culture eroticizes youth.
Finally, it is important to note how engendered constructions of girlhood
are linked to notions of nationalism. Mankekar has argued that narratives
of girlhood carried out in the press come "to signify the endangered purity
of the nation" (1997, p. 29). She explores the media coverage of a young
Muslim girl, Ameena, who was supposedly forced into marriage against her
will to a sixty-year-old Arab. As the debate about Ameena was carried out
in the major newspapers in India, a battle also ensued over gender,
sexuality and nationality. Ameena became "an icon of the essentially
fragile purity of all girl-children, and, by synecdonic extension, the
purity of the Indian nation" (p. 41).
Like Ameena, the kidnapped girls who made the headlines in 2002 came to
represent a fragile, violated nation threatened by foreigners. Abductions,
far from being a true threat to America's children, became a metaphor for
For this textual analysis of mainstream news coverage of child abductions,
I reviewed news articles from the newspaper USA Today and Newsweek magazine
in the height of reporting on child abductions, from May 1 through August
30, 2002. I chose these publications for their high circulation numbers and
obvious mass appeal. The story of child abductions was not one told as much
in "elite" media such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. Due to
its dramatic appeal and sensational nature, reporting on child abductions
was a story fit for mainstream, mass circulation newspapers, magazines and
I performed an initial search in Lexis-Nexis for stories in USA Today and
Newsweek that included the phrase "child abduction" or "kidnapping" in the
headline or lead paragraph for the four-month time period under study. I
looked at all stories (47 from USA Today and 23 from Newsweek) and selected
those that exclusively covered kidnappings in the U.S. For example, I
eliminated stories on international kidnappings and articles about the
entertainment industry (such as reviews of films or television movies
Stories generally fell into one of four categories: crime reports, tips for
patents, feature stories on the issue of child abductions, and spin-off
stories about pedophilia and child abuse in the priesthood. Most articles
followed typical crime reporting structure—focusing on one specific case,
graphically describing the kidnapping and outlining efforts by police to
find the suspect(s). There were also several stories featuring tips for
parent on how to protect their children from strangers more generally or
from kidnappers more specifically. These how-to articles offered tips in
bullet-point fashion, and were usually submitted by teachers, the FBI, or
law enforcement officials. Another category was that of the feature article
that examined the issue of kidnapping in America. These were usually
critical pieces that analyzed trends in kidnapping, talked about several of
the most publicized cases, and concluded there was no epidemic parents
should be concerned about. Finally, some reporters used the issue of child
abductions to bounce onto other "related" topics such as pedophilia,
violence against women and children and child abuse by priests. In
conducting the textual analysis, several major patterns emerged.
Similar Portrayals of "Victim"
The most obvious theme that ran throughout these stories was the striking
similarity between victims in the media's coverage of child abductions. Not
surprisingly, victims that made the news coverage were exclusively white,
middle-to-upper class little girls. As discussed earlier, most coverage
revolved around the cases of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart, 5-year-old
Samatha Runion and 7-year-old Danielle Van Dam. These girls lived in the
suburbs of major metropolitan areas and were "snatched" from near or within
their homes. The focus of media attention was on abductions within the
private sphere—not a public place such as the schoolyard or a shopping
mall. Two of the girls, Smart and van Dam, were taken from their beds in
the middle of the night—the culturally constructed "safe haven." Several
articles pointed out the "distressing similarities" between the victims in
these cases (Leinwand, 2002; Murr, 2002; Preventing child abductions, 2002).
While it is perhaps not surprising that the victims in media coverage look
so similar, it is nonetheless disturbing considering that the population of
missing children is more diverse than these media portrayals. During the
same time period, many other children disappeared, of course, but they did
not receive the same media attention. For example, 2-year-old Jahi Turner
was kidnapped in San Diego, and 7-year-old Alexis Patterson from Milwaukee
was taken when walking home from school. Both kids were black. While their
cases received a great deal of local attention, their faces were not
plastered across national media like the ones of the white suburban girls
In deciding which child victims got the most media attention, and for that
matter which child victims got attention at all, media workers showed
obvious preferences based on social class, race and gender. Part of this
decision was ultimately based on the political economy of the modern media
system in the U.S.—most readers of USA Today and Newsweek are white, middle
to upper class. Additionally, as Hartley points out, the abduction and
abuse cases that tend to get the most media attention are the ones in which
there are images of attractive girls (1998, p. 57). By extension, the
young, attractive Caucasian faces of van Dam, Smart and Runion became
symbols of American innocence and fragility that needed protection. Based
on class and gender structures in the U.S., the faces of little boys and
minority children who were abducted could not hold that same symbolic power.
Using Class to Draw Boundaries
The articles under study stressed class as a way to mark and reinforce
boundaries between victim and predator. In describing the crime, almost all
noted the residence of the victim as belonging to middle or high-class
neighborhoods. In the coverage of Elizabeth Smart, who received the most
coverage by far, the press described her "million dollar home" as a
"seven-bedroom hillside mansion," and stressed her father's employment as a
"real estate broker." On the contrary, the initial suspect in her case is
assumed to be a homeless man: "The hunt continues for Bret Michael Edmunds,
26, a transient whom police think may have been in the neighborhood before
the disappearance" (McMahon, 2002, June 17).
Some reports stressed the obvious dichotomy in class between suspect and
victim, as demonstrated in the lead paragraph of a Newsweek story:
The two neighborhoods couldn't be more different. Almost four weeks after
14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her home in the wealthy
foothills of Salt Lake City, the spotlight had shifted across town to a
modest trailer park in the southwest suburbs. The focal point: the home of
Richard Albert Ricci, a 48-year-old ex-con and handyman who had worked at
the Smart's million-dollar mansion more than a year ago. (Peraino, 2002, p.
Media reports stressed class to clearly define suspects as
"other"—different from the families being tormented by child abductors. The
impact may be to create a false portrayal or stereotype of child abductors
as vagrants or low class, blue collar workers.
Class distinctions are also present in the tips for parents outlining how
to avoid abductions by strangers. Reports urged parents to have the child's
bedroom on the second floor, not to advertise family finances, and to avoid
personalized clothing and bags that have the child's name imprinted on
them. Warning such as these assume a higher socio-economic status, and
clearly play to an audience of predominately middle- to upper-class readers.
Predator as Stranger
Another important distinction was drawn between victim and predator: the
suspect is always assumed to be a stranger to the family. Readers are
assured that the "family is not the focus of the investigation" (McMahon,
2002, June 10). When a family member is interviewed by police, as in the
case of Elizabeth's uncle Tom Smart, it is only a part of police routine to
rule out relatives. When the local paper reported a police theory that the
culprit may be an extended family member, the Salt Lake City community and
the Smart's Mormon congregation became enraged (McMahon, 2002, June 10).
The general reporting trend to stress the suspect as stranger reinforces
the extraordinary nature of these crimes, since most child abductors are
family members or someone close to the family.
At the same time the articles stressed that family members were not
suspects, they also pointed out several clues to indicate that the
"intruder" could not have been a stranger. In the Smart case, there were no
signs of forced entry into the house, no screams from the girls' room, and
it appeared the screen door may have been cut from inside the house.
Even when all signs pointed to a family member, police and media reports
stressed the stranger nature of suspects, further distinguishing those who
kidnap from those who are kidnapped. The family as an entity is protected
from media scrutiny. The construction of the stranger abductor may be, as
Levine argues, a way in which society casts its own fears of sexual
deviance outward onto a cardboard monster, in an attempt to "fortify the
nuclear family by fomenting suspicion of strangers" (2002, p. 44).
Commonality to Readers
Even though this type of crime is extremely rare, the stories stress the
commonality to the audience by tapping into fears the stories inevitably
invoke. Through editorializing and quoting, news reports stressed that the
stranger abductions are "every parent's worst nightmare," or "one of
parents' biggest fears" (Thomas, 2002). As one volunteer worker said, "You
should be able to count on your home being safe." (McMahon, 2002, June 10).
The media focused on the human, emotional aspects of the story so that
readers could relate to victim's families. While the crime itself is rare,
the fear and grief was presented as something all readers could respond to.
Media reports played on the universal themes of family values, safety in
the home and child protection to give the story a much further reach than
it had for the relatively few families suffering the loss of their children.
Families grieving from a missing child also know the power of media images,
repetition and saturation. Many, like the Smart family, hire public
relations experts to help humanize the victim. As Mike Grass, the Smarts'
public relations advisor told Newsweek, "When people see those images of
the victim, it hits home because those are intimate scenes from her life"
(Murr, 2002, p. 38). At the same time strangers are cast as "the other,"
media reports stressed how the white, middle-class suburban families were
"the same" as us—that this tragedy could happen to normal Americans.
Mix of Warnings and Self-Scrutiny
Perhaps one of the most interesting findings was the way media reports
juxtaposed graphic details of children snatched from their homes with
statistics showing such crimes are actually very rare. Almost universally,
stories included a caveat, usually immediately following the lead paragraph
or as one of the final graphs in the story:
"But kidnapping is rare, says…an expert on child protection." (Thomas,
2002, p. 7D)
"But recent statistics tell a more hopefully story: Kidnappings by
strangers are, in fact, declining." (Preventing child abductions, 2002, p.10A).
"Kidnappings are relatively rare. They account for less than 1.5% of
violent crimes against children." (Leinwand, 2002, p. 3A)
Several stories told readers, "Take heart: this is not an epidemic," but
then followed up such a statement with frightening details of the crime and
emotional pleas from parents (Murr, 2002, p. 38). Many stories linked the
three or four abduction cases and drew comparisons between them, giving the
illusion of an epidemic while at the same time using objective statistics
to prove such crimes were rare. One story used several paragraphs of crime
statistics to convince readers they should not fear child abductions, then
followed up with a list of "stranger traps" children should avoid
(Preventing child abductions, 2002, p. 10A). To group these relatively rare
and unrelated abduction cases together became a business strategy on the
part of media organizations, the result of which may have been to create a
moral panic. As Stabile points out, "a crime wave, moral panic, or moral
crusade…can be used to temporarily boost and maintain circulation or
audience share" (2001, p. 274).
While most stories reported the declining trends in kidnapping, in many
cases the significance of the numbers were immediately downplayed or reversed:
"Cold statistics may do little to calm parents." (Preventing child
abductions, 2002, p.10A)
"Try telling the friends and loved ones of…countless victims." (Strange,
M. Z., 2002, p. 13A)
"…statistics are meaningless." (Sharpe, 2002, p. 3A)
While media reports osculated between warnings to parents and declining
kidnapping statistics, some reporters and editorial readers seemed to
concede to the over-reporting and offer justification. As Jonathan Alter
explains in his Newsweek editorial, perhaps there may have been too much
I can't help thinking that many people…may be overacting to all these
stories, and the effect will be to continue changing our children's lives
for the worse. The media, of course, are leading the way. Let's be honest:
covering child kidnappings is inexpensive and gets boffo ratings; it's this
summer's version of killer sharks. (Alter, 2002).
As the summer went on and the media were increasingly scrutinized for their
"hype," some reports seemed to take a defensive tone in an attempt to
justify coverage. As one subhead reads, "The media may have taken the heat
for all those kidnap stories this summer. But sometimes, the hype helps
save lives" (Murr, 2002, p. 28). The story went on to credit the news
media's wall-to-wall coverage for helping to find and save two California
teens who were taken from a hilltop lover's lane. The media's own
self-scrutiny was balanced by justifications for why the story of child
abductions was a necessary one to tell.
Alternative Endings: The Ones Who Got Away
While most of the child abduction stories in the news media ended
tragically, two cases that received widespread attention offered an
alternative ending—the children escaped.
Erica Pratt, a 7-year-old from Philadelphia, was touted as a "role model
for kids everywhere" when she escaped from her kidnappers by chewing
through duct tape, punching out a window, kicking out a panel in the floor
and screaming for help (Peterson, 2002, p. 7D). Media reports described her
as "gutsy" and provided details of her "tough" escape that obviously took a
great deal of courage and physical strength (generally masculine traits).
Class may have been used to explain her toughness; as one family friend
told the local paper, "You don't mess with a 7-year-old from Southwest
Philadelphia" (Ewers, 2002 p. 6). Yet despite her heroics, media
descriptions of Pratt kept her firmly entrenched in the realm of
"girlhood." She was described as "petite" and "clad in bright pink." When
confronted by reporters, we're told she "buried her face in a stuffed
animal" (Ewers, 2002 p. 6).
Another successful escape came after two teenage girls were abducted from a
lover's lane overlooking the Mojave Desert in Quartz Hill, California by a
37-year-old ex-con. The girls were rescued after a barrage of broadcast
media stories and Amber Alert messages splashed the faces of the victims,
the abductor and his license plate. Drivers and viewers tipped off police,
and the suspect was found and shot to death. Within another 10 minutes,
police claim, the girls would have been murdered and buried The media liked
taking credit for this rescue; the news articles in this sample stressed
that were it not for the "new symbiosis" between police and the news media,
the girls would be dead. (Murr, 2002, p. 28).
While the teens were "rescued" by police, their "harrowing battle stories"
were shared in the national media spotlight. Police sadly revealed that the
girls had been raped, causing a great deal of controversy since the media
normally withhold the names and faces of rape victims, especially
juveniles. The articles stressed the teens attempt to escape—one took a
hunting knife from the gear shift and stabbed her abductor in the throat
while the other smashed a bottle on his head. But he pulled a gun on them,
leaving the girls at the mercy of police, and the media, to save them.
In both escape stories, the girls who got away were portrayed as both
masculine and feminine. All three girls performed brave, even violent acts
constructed as "masculine" such as kicking, punching and even knifing. They
were nonetheless still cast as feminine through physical descriptions of
their clothing and personal (i.e. "poised" in "pink"), the revelation of
the teens as rape victims, and their inevitable helplessness until the end
until police rescued them.
The Solution: Reporting on Legislation and Policy
In mid to late August, media coverage switched from reporting on specific
abduction cases to focusing on legislation enacted to help find child
abductors. Most articles focused on Amber Alert, a program that pairs law
enforcement officials with local media outlets to broadcast the name and
license plate numbers of suspected kidnappers on the radio, television
stations, billboards and cell phones. The system has been in place in a few
states since 1996. But few had probably heard of the relatively obscure
program until this summer's high-profile abductions put Amber Alter on our
national radar. Reporting on the system increased in mid-August when the
House and Senate were debating a bill that would put in place a national
system (as opposed to the current state-by-state system).
Despite the media's early pleas for an end to the string of abductions, the
articles in this sample were for the most part critical of the Amber Alter
system. While the articles did credit the system with saving the lives of
the two California teens, reports for the most part condemned the system as
impractical. As the August 28 edition of USA Today criticized, the rush to
implement the system would inevitable cause false alarms that could numb
public interest (Sharpe, 2002). Even supporters admitted that recent
publicity was accelerating a program that still had kinks in it and was not
ready for national exposure. Others raised concerns about the lack of
consistent standards, questioning which abductions would qualify for an
Amber Alter. Still other criminal experts argued that the system is simply
not needed—that since there is no increase in abductions, there is no
warrant for expensive legislation.
Some articles argue that kidnapping legislation in general is
emotionally-driven and should be considered more carefully. An article
from August 19 evaluated California's "three-strikes" law, which punishes a
string of three misdemeanors with heavy prison sentences like 25 years to
life (Biskupic, 2002). The law was sparked after the kidnapping and murder
of 12-year-old Polly Klaas ten years ago. Her kidnapper had been convicted
on similar charges twice before, but was let out on parole when he killed
The article called into question the constitutionality of the three-strikes
law, claiming it resulted in cruel and unusual punishment for many who were
spending years in jail for stealing videos and similar type crimes. Experts
cited in the article claimed the punishment for such emotionally-driven
laws was grossly out of proportion to the crime.
In their reporting on child abduction cases, the news media used
constructions of gender and class to mark boundaries between kidnapper and
kidnapped, predator and victim. The abductors in this study were always
men, usually motivated by sex, while victims were always young girls. These
media constructions are somewhat representative and problematic at the same
time. According to crime statistics, men do commit 95 percent of abductions
by strangers and 84 percent of abductions by acquaintances. Girls are more
likely to be the victims, constituting two-thirds of abductions (Leinwand,
2002). However, boys are still the victims in one-third of all cases.
Furthermore, while these cases focused on very young girls, most abductions
are of teenagers, not young children.
As Carter (1998) argues, by over publicizing crimes by male
strangers—whether it be rape, murder or kidnapping—the media create false
epidemics which serve as warnings to women and young girls. Although most
violence against women is perpetrated by family members, media reports
stress the "extraordinary" crimes where the stranger is the culprit. In the
articles in this study, the media kept the family free of scrutiny and
played up the stranger nature of abductions. In at least two of the cases,
however, the suspect turned out not to be a total stranger to the family
(in one case he was a neighbor; in another he was their handyman). Broadly
speaking, what is perhaps more disturbing is that true threats to children
in the U.S.—such as lack of health care, high poverty rates and a declining
education system—do not get the same attention from the media and
politicians as obscure threats like child abductions (Makekar, 1997).
Although young girls are not the only children to get abducted, media
workers admit that images of attractive girls sell better to readers and
viewers. Media critics acknowledge that having "footage of cute teenage
girls" is part of the marketing strategy on the part of news stations to
attract audiences and garner high ratings (Kurtz, 2002, p. 2). As Fass
(1997), Hartley (1998) and Levine (2002) have noted in the past, media
coverage in this case seemed to be caught in a painful contradiction of
child sexual exploitation, at the one hand attempting to police and protect
youth sexuality and at the same time exploiting child murder victims. As
mentioned previously, all the girl victims in these cases were attractive,
and some media reports offered descriptions that seemed to sexualize them.
One media report said Elizabeth Smart, the oldest girl and one approaching
sexual age, was abducted while the "young girl slept in her red satin
pajamas." One detective says of Elizabeth, "We want to correct that little
girl type image. At 14 years old and 5-foot-6-inches, she's a young woman."
While media reports sexually exploited the young victims, they also sought
to protect them. As criminologist James Alan Fox points out, we have "a
protective response to crimes against children, and when it's girls they
appear to us to be particularly defenseless" (Kurtz, 2002, p. 2). Girlhood
symbolizes our "protective response" toward childhood specifically, and
thus symbolizes desires to protect family life and our nation more
generally. Even in stories of escape attempts, when the girls used perhaps
more violent, typically "masculine" strategies, their femininity and
vulnerability were reinscribed.
Just as girlhood elicits our collective protective response, the
hypersexualied male abductor elicits our collective fear and hostility.
While the number of stranger abductions is declining, the news media seemed
to stress this figure's ever-presence, to imply he is lurking outside our
children's bedrooms. Just as Levine (2002) suggests, these news reports
show how the pedophile once again becomes a popular social construct during
times of economic and social upheaval.
Class distinctions were also used to show how kidnappers come from a
different world than that of victimized families. By stressing these
"differences," media reports might create the false perception that
abductors are underclass vagrants, when in reality most kidnapping is
committed by a family member or someone within the family's social circle.
These boundaries were drawn—through class, race, gender and by stressing
the extraordinary—in order to keep "the physical and emotional integrity of
the family" (Levine, 2002, p. 134). Media reports struggled to "other" the
kidnapper, whether or not it made sense to, in order to restore family life.
By "othering" of the kidnapper/pedophile and reinscribing "normal" family
life, the media reflect the culture of fear, specifically fear of the
other, that permeates our post-9/11 world. In the 1990s, kidnapping
reporting centered on parental abductions, representing distrust of the
court system and family structures (Fass, 1997). In 2002, however, the
stranger once again becomes the culprit, symbolic of our perceived threat
as a nation to foreign invaders. The message is clear: we are not safe, not
even in our own homes, sleeping in our own beds. These messages in turn
invoke our protectionist "instincts"—to call upon any means necessary to
protect our families, our nation, from hostile invaders.
This research has several implications for the study of how the media
creates and sustains moral panics. If one accepts reports of panicked
parents and desperate lawmakers, the media created a moral panic even
through kidnappings were on the decline. While the news reports in this
sample consistently used objective crime statistics (hard news) to show
kidnapping was on the decline, they were overpowered by emotional pleas and
gripping dramatic details (soft news). The end result was to downplay and
at times downright reject the hard facts at the expense of emotional testimony.
In their classic work Policing the Crisis, Stuart Hall and his colleagues
argued that media coverage is successful in creating moral panics when
political and criminal justice officials speak of the crime monolithically,
espousing the same causes and solutions (Hall et al. 1978, p. 16). However,
this study indicates that perhaps a moral panic can exist without elites
speaking "with one voice" about the crime. Oftentimes, in these stories, it
was the "official" sources—police chiefs, child welfare workers and
criminologists—who were trying to convince readers there was not an
epidemic. But the voices of these elite sources were often drowned out by
non-elites—panicked parents, frustrated volunteers, concerned neighbors.
Future research should examine the role of non-elite sources (i.e. soft
news) in creating a moral panic, while the "experts" continue to charge
there is no epidemic (i.e. hard news).
Future research should also examine whether or not media reporting of
fairly obscure crimes such as these are truly successful in creating a
widespread moral panic. As Stabile (2001) argues, public opinion is very
much manufactured by institutions, including mass media. Just because the
news reports that the pubic is concerned about a particular crime doesn't
necessarily make it the case. While mainstream media showed parents too
frightened to let their kids out of house, that is no indication that the
public at large was truly panicked about child abductions.
Future research in this area should also study the use of images and
specifically television coverage in cases of child abductions. Images of
the kidnapped, the kidnapper and the victimized family are undoubtedly
incredibly powerful in communicating this story to audiences. An analysis
of how these images shed light on constructions of gender, race, girlhood,
family and sexuality would provide a strong supplement to this research.
Another interesting area of research would be to compare the coverage of
female child abductions with male child molestation victims. The story of
priests molesting young boys in their parish overlapped in the news cycle
with these reports of child abductions. While both the girl and boy victims
can be read as symbolic of a fragile, abused nation, there might be
important differences in coverage that a comparative study could reveal.
For example, what are the implications of portraying girls as victims of
stranger abductions, but portraying boys as victims of trusted, loved
Finally, as researchers, journalists and citizens, we need to consider the
implications of when notions of childhood, and girlhood specifically,
become intertwined with notions of nationality. In exploiting child victims
as symbols of protection, and in marginalizing strangers as potential
threats to family and nation, news media may work to further divide society
based on gender, race and class. At the same time that we celebrate and
sexualize youth culture, we are also met with a barrage of news stories,
billboards, and posters filled with the faces of our lost children, "which
serve as both cautions and come-ons, provoking anxiety and defining a
cultural indulgence that exploits the very children we seek to protect"
(Fass, 1997, p. 7).
Alter, J. (2002, July 29). Who's taking the kids? Newsweek Web Exclusive.
Available online at www.newsweek.com.
Biskupic, J. (2002, August 19). 'Three-strikes' cases test emotion-driven
law. USA Today, p. 4A.
Carter, C. (1998). When the 'extraodinary' becomes the 'ordinary': Everyday
news of sexual violence. In C. Carter, G. Branston and S. Allan (Eds.),
News, gender and power (pp. 219-232). New York: Routledge.
Crary, D. (2002, July 19). Despite grim headlines, experts say abductions
of children by strangers are rare and getting rarer. Associated Press, p. 1.
Ewers, J. (2002, August 5). You don't mess with Erica Pratt. U.S. News &
World Report, 6.
Fass, P. (1997). Kidnapped: Child abduction in America. New York: Oxford
Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J. & Roberts, B. (1997).
Policing the crisis: Mugging, the state, and law and order. New York:
Holmes & Meier.
Hartley, J. (1998). Juvenation: News, girls and power. In C. Carter, G.
Branston and S. Allan (Eds.), News, gender and power (pp. 47-70). New York:
Kurtz, H. (2002, July 27). Is the media blowing coverage of child
abductions out of proportion? Transcript of CNN Reliable Sources, 1-4.
Levine, J. (2002). Harmful to minors: The perils of protecting children
from sex. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Leinwand, D. (2002, August 15). Kidnapping problem 'impossible' to
quantify. USA Today, p. 3A.
Mankekar, P. (1997). To whom does Ameena belong: A feminist analysis of
childhood and nationhood in contemporary India. Feminist Review, 56, 26-60.
McMahon, P. (2002, June 10). Utah's 'worst nightmare.' USA Today, p. 3A.
McMahon, P. (2002, June 17). City 'unwavering' in search of girl. USA
Today, p. 3A.
Murphy, D. (2003, March 12). Utah girl, 15, is found alive 9 months after
kidnapping. The New York Times, p. A1.
Murr, A. (2002, July 29). When kids go missing. Newsweek, 38.
Peranio, K. (2002, July 8). The plot thickens. Newsweek, 41.
Peterson, K. (2002, July 25). Gutsy little Erica Prat 'did exactly what we
tell kids to do.' USA Today, p. 7D.
Preventing child abductions. (2002, June 30). USA Today, p. 10A.
Sharpe, R. (2002, August 28). States speed Amber Alter plans. USA Today, p.
Stabile, Carol (2001). Conspiracy or consensus: Reconsidering the moral
panic. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 25, 258-278.
Strange, M. Z. (2002, August 26). Abductions highlight another security
threat. USA Today, p. 13A.
Thomas, K. (2002, July 9). Keeping kids safe, and yet open. USA Today, p. 7D.