August 19, 2002

A Summer of Abductions? Not Really
The news directors’ antennae are up,” said James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University. “All of (the abductions) are sad and tragic,” he added, “but there are no more in number than in past years.”

Metrowest Daily News (Boston) quotes Fox as saying there are about 100 child abductions by strangers each year in the U.S. — we’ve had about 60 so far this year. But the child-grabbing frenzy has swept across the country faster than our August heat wave.

“Many parents are going overboard and not letting their kids play outside,” Fox argues. “… They are lessening the quality of their (children’s) lives.”

Furthermore, Fox says the “Amber alert” concept creates even more pitfalls. The Amber alert — adopted in 15 states and under review in scores of others, including Massachusetts — broadcasts information about abducted children to electronic highway signs and television and radio stations soon after any evidence of an abduction is discovered. The alert is named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, kidnapped from her Dallas home and murdered six years ago.

Next month, two senators will file legislation aimed at creating a nationwide Amber alert system. President Bush has also convened a White House summit in September on child abductions and kidnapping. But Fox, Greater Boston’s renowned criminologist, is taking to the national airwaves and writing in America’s op-ed sections proclaiming his cautionary Amber alert tale.

“Emotions are high,” he says. “Let’s cool down” before heading off with visions of vigilantism dancing in our heads. Fox, penning his Saturday op-ed piece for The New York Times when I called, makes a reasoned argument. If you cry wolf one too many times, motorists will doze off and ignore any Amber alert message.

A Texas sheriff who helped found the program in 1997 tells the Dallas Morning News that police should only use the alert when missing children are feared to be in serious danger.

The recent rescue of two abducted teen-age girls in California has set off a wave of publicity and praise for the program.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children credits the program with saving 22 abducted children nationwide.

The Dallas Morning News says, “Local guidelines say the alerts should be issued only for children 15 years or younger who authorities think are in serious danger. Older people with mental or physical disabilities also may generate alerts. Child custody disputes usually don’t qualify. Statewide, the alerts are issued for children 17 and under, the governor’s office said.

“I think there have been a few times when [local] agencies were not as strict on the criteria as they could have been,” said Tarrant County Chief Deputy Mike Simonds, a former Arlington homicide sergeant who in 1999 helped start the local police review committee that analyzes uses of the Amber alert every three months.

To guard against unwarranted alerts, letters are sent to police agencies that the committee determines did not follow the criteria. The committee suggests ways the department can improve its use of the program. To date, no police agency has been barred from issuing alerts –- the unofficial punishment for repeated mishaps.

The media also must curb sensationalism about the alerts, some say.

“Good journalists will take something like the Amber Plan or any child abduction story and treat it responsibly and give it the appropriate amount of coverage,” said Steve Collins, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“Bad journalists can go crazy with this and can whip the public into a frenzy. You walk that very fine line where you want to make people aware, but on the other hand, you don’t want to make people think that it’s just a matter of minutes before their own child is taken.”

File Tape and Trauma — Talking to Our Kids
Newsday reports, “Most children 4 and under don’t realize that it’s a taped replay from Sept. 11 when television screens show the World Trade Center collapsing in a cloud of dust. They think it’s happening all over again.

Some NBC News executives were taken aback when told that by Harold Koplewicz, a psychiatrist and founder of the New York University Child Study Center.

The network has taken the unusual step of hiring Koplewicz as an adviser, realizing the hours of coverage planned for the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks could reverberate in unexpected ways.

“If we’re going to show images of the buildings falling down again, parents should be very concerned about the effect it will have on children,” Koplewicz said. “Children under age 5 should not be watching this.”

A study by the Harvard Medical School in June estimated that 50,000 schoolchildren in New York are at “extreme risk” because pre-existing emotional problems can compound the effects of trauma from the attacks.

Here is a website that has tons of links to help you write stories about how to talk to kids about war and terrorism. Sept. 11 will be a tough time for a lot of people to remember. It seems to me that now, rather than later, would be the time to help parents, caregivers, teachers — and ourselves — be smarter about how we cover what we cover on the anniversary.

Here is a piece that my Poynter colleague Bob Steele and I wrote a couple of years ago about when and how to use file tape in our stories on TV and on the Web.

Dr. Koplewicz met with producers at NBC and MSNBC to discuss their Sept. 11 coverage. He will appear on the air during a town hall meeting moderated by Tom Brokaw next month, and has filmed a handful of public service announcements. (What a great idea for you to get in touch with local psychologists, therapists, crisis counselors to help advise you on such coverage.)

Mark Lukasiewicz, executive producer for special projects at NBC News, said the network is not giving up any of its editorial independence in hiring Koplewicz. He’s an adviser, much like the national security and military experts NBC contracts to during wartime.

Having an idea how the coverage might affect children “is not necessarily at the top of my mind, and I don’t know how it will affect the coverage, but it’s good to know that,” Lukasiewicz said.

Other networks have been sensitive to how the story affects children as well.

Peter Jennings was host of a special that aired four days after the terrorist attacks last year, and he will have a segment on answering childrens’ questions as part of ABC’s coverage next month.

ABC banned use of film showing the towers collapsing after the initial days of coverage last year, and other networks showed restraint. Broadcast executives say they’ll show sensitivity next month, too — but all expect the images to be shown at some point.

School Physicals Enough for Athletes?
Sandee LaMotte at WebMD sent an idea to Morning Meeting readers.

WebMD reported some time back: “It is a surprising fact that there are still some high school and college athletic departments that do not require thorough pre-participation physical evaluation (PPEs) for every prospective team member. All but one state requires PPEs for high school and college athletes. Most require clearance by a “licensed medical practitioner,” which doesn’t necessarily mean a physician. In some states, chiropractors and physical therapist are approved to conduct PPEs.

The rite of the PPE is a “nuisance” to many of the tens of thousands of athletes who must take it. To the physicians and other healthcare professionals who administer them, the PPE is a time-consuming, low-paying task. Most experts agree that although the PPE system is inconsistent and imperfect, even in their less-than-ideal state PPEs are necessary.

When done well, the PPE can be valuable — even life-saving.

The PPE should include a detailed family and personal medical history and a sports-specific physical examination. According to Andrew Gregory, MD, an orthopedic fellow at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala., the medical history portion is the most important part of a PPE because most of the risk factors in sudden cardiac death are inherited or the result of earlier disease or injury.

The PPE is designed to uncover any of a number of contra-indications to athletic participation. Cardiovascular problems, neurological conditions, exercise induced asthma, vision problems, liver and spleen enlargement, loss of one of kidney, ovary, or testicle, and certain infections, if serious enough, can provide reason for disqualification or limitation of activities. According to Gregory, a study of 2700 athletes’ PPEs found:

– That 14 percent were not initially cleared. Of those,
– 12 percent were eventually cleared in a follow-up evaluation.
– Of the 14 percent who were not initially cleared, 53 percent were due to vision problems;
– 28 percent to musculoskeletal problems (knee problems were most common, followed by ankles and backs);
– and 5 percent to cardiac problems (mostly heart murmurs and high blood pressure).

Of the 2 percent who were ultimately disqualified from sports participation, 43 percent were due to musculoskeletal problems, 19 percent to cardiac problems, 13 percent to vision problems, and 8 percent to seizures.

Dangerous Sewage Sludge

The Gainesville Times reports, “A University of Georgia researcher says that living near land fertilized with sewage sludge can make people ill, and tighter regulations are needed to protect the public.

UGA microbiologist David Lewis, along with agricultural engineering professor David Gattie, caused a stir last month when he published an article in BMC Public Health, a British medical journal.

This was unwelcome news to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has promoted land application as a beneficial way to dispose of sewage sludge.

Sludge is the solid material that’s left after most of the water has been removed from raw sewage. Treatment plants in the U.S. produce about 5.6 million dry tons of sludge each year, and 60 percent of it is disposed of through land application. Most of the remainder is stored in landfills.

Candid Candidates
I recently watched a story from News 8 Honolulu reporter/anchor Diane Ako that you might want to consider. Diane is doing a series of stories called “Candid Candidate,” where she spends a day with candidates for local office and helps the viewer get to know the candidate beyond the campaign soundbites. In one story she interviewed the former Mayor of Maui now running for Governor while the candidate was taking a break from swimming, which she does every morning. How many times have you interviewed a candidate while standing in the pool?

The story was about how much energy it takes to run for office, how crowded the schedule is, how the candidate wants to put fitness in her campaign message. I like the idea, which of course does not take away from the harder reporting of issues.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

More News

Back to News