We all lose when the news media reinforces the irrational fear of “stranger danger”
November 15, 2015
Maybe it’s that almost every day in Southwest Florida is a slow news day, or maybe it’s that the quest for ratings drive the selection of stories that are covered, but it seems like there is an unusual fascination with reporting on the purported problem of “stranger danger.” After seeing yet another such stereotypical report on television, I dropped a note to the reporter that did the story. His polite response and defense of the validity of stranger danger offered insight into why the problem persists. It has been exactly two years since my last posting on risk perception so it seems reasonable to revisit the topic again from the perspective of news coverage.
The problem I have with media coverage of stranger danger incidents is that it usually perpetuates and intensifies an irrational fear of a child being abducted by a stranger that is wildly disproportionate to the actual risk. To put this all in perspective, the US Department of Justice is responsible for generating authoritative reports on child abductions and has commented on news coverage by stating: “The exaggerated fears of “stranger danger” generated by lurid tabloid headlines need to be replaced with solid facts garnered from serious research.” Serious research means bypassing agenda-driven websites that may benefit from stranger danger fears to find data from original, credible sources which are invariably government affiliated. If the data is from a website that ends in .com or .org, then additional research is need to find the source data. Critically reviewing the source data is the only way to understand the true context, applicability and limitations of the data.
Risk Perception versus Actual Risk
To be crystal clear, children are sometimes abducted by strangers and in those cases it is a tragedy of inestimable magnitude. It is precisely because of this magnitude that the risk is overestimated. Paul Slovic has written extensively about risk perception and identified two types of risk that determine the overall level of perceived risk, namely dread risk and unknown risk. In the case of dread risk, the idea is that the more dreadful the consequence, the higher the risk perception. Examples of high dread events would be nuclear war, nuclear reactor meltdown, or asteroid impacts. The commonality of these is that a single occurrence would be catastrophic. I would suggest that a child being abducted by a stranger would be in the dread risk category. Slovic has shown that people will consistently ignore the facts about the actual likelihood of an event occurring if it has a high dread factor and they will rate the event as being highly risky or dangerous.
The chance of a child being abducted by a stranger is incredibly remote, and yet it seems people live in fear of the unknown car driving too slowly by the bus stop. The situation is exacerbated by news organizations that prominently feature anecdotal reports of those slow-moving cars. One would hope that instead of fanning the fire of irrational fears, the media could use those anecdotal reports to educate the public on the true risk of stranger danger.
Part of the problem is that the individuals at news organizations are not immune from harboring their own misperception of stranger danger risk. A critically thinking person, especially a reporter, should be able to uncover relevant facts and change their perspective based on those facts. That would be the ideal situation, but in reality, most people are driven by what psychologists have termed motivated reasoning where “facts” are preferentially selected that support an existing position or belief. For example, the reporter that responded to me stated that “24% of abductions are by strangers… 27% by acquaintances.” Although the reporter cited no source for those figures in his email, there was a link in his reply to Parents.com where those figures were found. A Google search for “stranger kidnapping (24 percent)” shows a number of retail websites using those abduction figures. The important question is if those numbers are accurate.
Good data matters
It requires little additional Google searching to find that the original source of that often quoted data set is a 1997 report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention – “Kidnaping of Juveniles: Patterns From NIBRS.” The report clearly states the following.
Based on the identity of the perpetrator, there are three distinct types of kidnaping: kidnaping by a relative of the victim or “family kidnaping” (49 percent), kidnaping by an acquaintance of the victim or “acquaintance kidnaping” (27 percent), and kidnaping by a stranger to the victim or “stranger kidnaping” (24 percent)
So, the 24% is real, but is it meaningful today? The problem with the information is that it is from 1997 and is based on the review of only 1,214 cases from only 12 states. It is hardly current information and the limited dataset raises questions of its representativeness. Nevertheless, that 24% number remains prominently quoted on child abduction awareness websites and by certain local reporters. The fact that it is flawed has not diminished its popularity. In a very real sense, it is a classic example of motivated reasoning, e.g. “I believe that strangers abduct children, so I’ll find the facts that support my belief.”
Critical thinking and questioning the data
The limitations of the 1997 study were apparent to the agency that produced the report so they initiated a more robust, two-part study to assess nonfamily abductions of children. In part one, “National Estimates of Missing Children: An Overview” it was stated that in 2002 there were 797,500 children reported missing out of a total child-aged population of 70,172,700. In part two of the report, “Nonfamily Abducted Children: National Estimates and Characteristics” it was reported that of all the child abductions in 2002 there were only 115 classified as a “stereotypical abduction” defined as:
A nonfamily abduction perpetrated by a slight acquaintance or stranger in which a child is detained overnight, transported at least 50 miles, held for ransom or abducted with intent to keep the child permanently, or killed.
115 is a small number. It represents 0.014% of all children reported missing. As a percent of all children in the United States in 2002, the 115 abductions by a stranger amount to 0.00016%. Getting back to Slovic and the concept of the disparity between perceived risk and actual risk, it is important to accept the fact that child abductions by strangers are exceedingly rare and to use that fact to counteract the dread risk of such abduction.
Current FBI data: 1,671 kidnappings for all age groups in 2013
Since factual data matters when attempting to dislodge emotionally held beliefs such as stranger danger, it may be useful to look at the most current data set on kidnappings from the FBI.  In 2013 there were 15,041 kidnapping victims of all ages. 1,676 of these were by strangers or 11.1%. Since the total population in the US in 2013 was 316,500,000 the odds of anyone of any age being kidnapped by a stranger were 1,676/316,500,000 or 0.00053%.
In the dynamic between perceived risk and actual risk, numbers matter in another way. Denominator neglect – something that is often discussed in healthcare circles – is equally important in understanding why the perceived risk of child abductions is so high. Denominator neglect has been described as “A prominent example of the difficulties that patients experience to understand health-relevant numerical concepts is denominator neglect, or the focus on the number of times a target event has happened (numerators), without consideration of the overall number of opportunities for it to happen (denominators).” The point is that 115 child abduction by a stranger is tragic, but in relation to the entire population the actual risk is vanishingly small. As another point of perspective, in 2013, the National Weather Service reported more than twice as many people – 330 – were struck y lightning.
Media-driven, positive feedback loops, a.k.a. echo chambers
Given all the facts that show the risk of abduction by a stranger is minimal, there is still a palpable fear in some circles that it is a ubiquitous and pervasive threat that must be constantly addressed. Besides the influence of Slovic’s dread risk, another contributing factor must be that the media facilitates “echo chambers” for those like-minded people that believe in extreme stranger danger. For example, in his email to me, the local reporter stated, “I have had several parents thank me today- for reminding them to have an important talk with their children, since this is the fifth time this happened in 3 weeks.”
I would argue that in reality, nothing ever really happened that put any child at risk. Although it may feel good to get positive viewer feedback, it should not be construed as validating any stranger danger. In some ways, using a statement to prove the same statement is a common example of the logical fallacy circular reasoning, also known as “begging the question.”
What did happen is that some parents listened to a news story that validated their existing stranger danger paranoia which they then passed on to their children. Instead of planting the seeds of fear in their children, parents would do more good by addressing the daily risks that are far more likely to harm their children. Instead of warning of slow moving cars, maybe parents should make sure their children are wearing their seat belts. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2011, more than one third of children killed in motor vehicle accidents.
Risk as feelings versus risk as analysis
Life is about constantly assessing risk and acting accordingly. To the best of our ability, our actions should be guided by actual, fact-based risk assessment and not by perceived risk that is driven by emotion. Will that happen? Probably not. George Lowenstein drew a distinction between risk as feelings and risk as analysis. In his 2001 paper, Lowenstein stated, “Drawing on research from clinical, physiological, and other subfields of psychology, they show that emotional reactions to risky situations often diverge from cognitive assessments of those risks. When such divergence occurs, emotional reactions often drive behavior.”
One small step would be to better align perceived stranger danger risk with the facts. One place to start would be for local news outlets to become more aware of the facts and temper their coverage of stranger danger anecdotes with a touch of reality and informed perspective.
 “Begs the question” is one of many logical fallacies and does not mean “asks the question.” An example is “This painting is trash because it is obviously worthless.” https://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/begs.html