Prime Number

Friday, July 30, 2010


Numbers justify fear. 50,000 abducted children, for example, or 50,000 predators prowling for kids online. That last figure was once touted by the NBC show "Dateline." But where did it come from? As this piece from 2006 points out, 50,000 is something of a Goldilocks number in the media – not too big and not too small, but, for scaring the public, just right.

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Comments [3]

Richard Wexler from Alexandria VA

Part two of two:
Several years later, Walsh admitted that “I can’t defend those figures,” but by then the panic he’d helped to start had swept the nation. Pictures of missing children were plastered on milk cartons and mail from your congressman; some children’s earliest memories now include being taken down to the shopping mall to be fingerprinted; a lot of children became terrified of every adult they didn’t know; and a lot of adults became terrified to smile at a child.

There are many more examples, and it would be worth exploring why so many of these absurd, and dangerous, numbers revolve around child maltreatment.

All of which is why, tomorrow morning, I’ll be sending the link to this story to my organization’s e-mail list of 300 reporters who sometimes cover child welfare.

Richard Wexler
Executive Director
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

Aug. 04 2010 04:01 PM
Richard Wexler from Alexandria VA

Part one of two:
Actually, it would be prudent to beware of the numbers that supposedly are easier to quantify as well. In a book I wrote 20 years ago, Wounded Innocents, (Prometheus Books: 1990) I described where that 50,000-children-abducted-by-strangers came from; which I learned courtesy of some excellent reporting in 1986 by the Rochester, N.Y. Democrat and Chronicle:

In October 1981, John Walsh, whose son Adam had been kidnapped and murdered a few months before, testified before a United States Senate committee. “We were told not to come here without some statistics,” Walsh said, at one point. So he gave them some.
Walsh declared that fifty thousand children are abducted by strangers and disappear every year. Nobody challenged the number at the time. Some of the senators started using it themselves, and soon the estimate took on a life of its own ...

Richard Wexler
Executive Director
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

Aug. 04 2010 04:00 PM
Peter Capek from Ossining, NY

There seems to me to be a real difference between crimes which are "events" like murders (there's a body) and car thefts (there's a specific car missing) and much vaguer notions like how many ill-defined "predators" are "online" at any "moment". I realize the value and appeal of a number in news reports, but I also instinctively, almost sub-consciously, discount numbers for such vague, or less specific, concepts.

I would like to see our schools teach awareness of such "facts" as part of the regular curriculum.

Aug. 01 2010 11:04 AM

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