News Media Misuse Data From 1990s On Child Abductions


NBC Nightly News said in January that, “According to the FBI's latest study, more than 58,000 kids were abducted by non-relatives in one year.” The Washington Post says the statistic is misused, and also has been cited by ABC News and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The Post says the number is derived from data collected between 1997 and 1999, mainly from telephone survey in 1999 of 16,111 with adult caregivers and 5,015 youths. These numbers, which are not an FBI study, come from an era that predates the wide use of mobile phones, which allow parents to keep much closer track of their children, or the creation of Amber alerts, which are also on phones, in Facebook news feeds and so forth

David Finkelhor, a University of New Hampshire professor who heads the Crimes Against Children Research Center and is a key author of the study, readily said that the media frequently misunderstand and misreport this figure. “I don't think it is a reliable estimate and I don't use it very much,” he said. Two key components of the 58,000 figure are children who are reported missing by their caretakers or children who were missed by the caretaker for at least an hour but no report was filed. The report warns that “both of these numerical estimates are quite imprecise and could actually be quite a bit smaller or larger because they are based on very small numbers of cases.” The number of stereotypical kidnappings is significantly smaller: 115. The FBI reported 332 abductions by a stranger last year as 332.

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