Manipulating the Numbers

An article from a recent edition of the Columbia Journalism Review takes a good look at the questionable journalistic standards behind the “To Catch a Predator” series on the NBC magazine show Dateline.

In the process the writer also finds that statistics of the numbers of predators stalking kids on the web, cited by Dateline reporters and others, are suspicious.

When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gave a speech about a major initiative to combat the “growing problem” of Internet predators, he cited a statistic that 50,000 such would-be pedophiles were prowling the Net at any given moment and attributed it to Dateline. Jason McLure, a reporter at Legal Times in Washington, D.C., (where I was formerly an editor), asked the show about the number. Dateline told him that it had gotten it from a retired FBI agent who consulted with the show. When the agent was contacted he wasn’t sure where the number had come from, terming it a “Goldilocks” figure – “Not small and not large.” He added that it was the same figure that was used by the media to describe the number of people killed annually by Satanic cults in the 1980s, and before that was cited as the number of children abducted by strangers each year in the 1970s.

Politicians who want to impose oppressive legal restrictions on use of the web by students are also using this number, along with claims that the problem is getting worse, to justify the restrictions.

But actually there isn’t much evidence that it is getting worse. For example, many news reports have cited a Justice Department study as saying that one in five children is approached online by a sexual predator. But as Radford Benjamin of The Skeptical Inquirer pointed out, what that 2001 study actually said was that 19 percent had received a “sexual solicitation” online, about half of which came from other teens and none of which led to a sexual assault. According to the study, the number of teens aggressively solicited by adults online was about 3 percent. A more recent study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire found that the number of kids getting unwanted sexual advances on the Internet was in fact declining. In general, according to data compiled by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, more than 70 percent of sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by family members or family friends.

None of this means we shouldn’t be concerned about students using the web. Parents and teachers still need to provide supervision and guidance. One part of learning to be a good – and safe – net user.

However, it makes no sense to let a tabloid television show, one that’s manipulating fear to increase ratings, set the scope of and drive the solution to this problem.

[Thanks to Will for the link.]

nbc dateline, predator, manipulation