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Abducted by the Media

Reporting the exception, rather than rule, has all but made many headlines and news broadcasts a parade of ongoing, out-of-proportion crises. From this summer's intense focus on child abductions, to last summer's equally intense focus on shark attacks, this sensational emphasis reveals a penchant for the bizarre rather than the factual.

Most bizarre is a media tendency to speculate about a "trend" when there is none.

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Some responsible members of the press already have pointed out that child abductions are not up, they're down. Without trivializing the seriousness of the crime, about 300 children are abducted annually in the US by strangers, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

And that summer of shark attacks was also nothing out of the statistical ordinary, despite the hyped coverage. More swimmers and divers can elevate the number of shark attacks – even as the world's shark population continues to decline.

A routine hyping of events by journalists can create fears beyond their measure, especially in reporting a new (to the US) disease.

This year, the number of deaths from West Nile virus, by national standards, has been minuscule (54), but one would think from media reports that Americans are suffering the plague. What's missing is perspective, and balance that lets readers and viewers decide for themselves the level of danger. Too easily, the press can prompt irrational fears, and possibly panic, especially when events are transmitted in nanoseconds.

Exaggerating a danger is as irresponsible to the cause of honest journalism as ignoring a danger. And claiming there's a trend when one barely exists or doesn't exist at all is to peddle false information.

Thankfully, false catastrophes are not served up on every channel or every news page.


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