phenomenon, similar to the game of "Telephone
", producing totally skewed versions of reality for readers.
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the number of missing young humans (birth to 18 years old) reported in the United States over a year is something like 7,000. Of these, a good number, say 3,000 are found within 24 hours, 2,000 of these are found to be living with estranged spouses, 1000 are runaways, and 500 are abandoned (cruel, but still practised here and there). This leaves us with 500 cases, of which perhaps 300 are explained by other means (living with other relatives, for instance). Of these remaining 200, some are found (eventually), some aren't (teen suicide, etc.), and maybe one or two are found dead, as was Adam Walsh. So far so good, and remember that these figures are wholly arbitrary.
So, I'm writing an article, and I happen to mention that "7000 children are missing in a year, and there may be more. While many of these are accounted for, some of these are abandoned. Some are forced into prostitution, or living in squalid conditions. Some are even found dead.", and go on to talk about child welfare in general, and the poor state therof, and go on to talk about how, sometimes, it's hard for middle- and upper-class children living outside large cities to get help for abuse.
This is but a small problem, statistically, and tragic for those it affects, but it's not a national emergency...child welfare specialists need not be dispatched to prep schools just yet, nor should Greenwich be targeted for Federal funding to aid the suffering innocents therein. However, my rhetorical skills may stir another writer to talk about the poor state of child welfare, and there, the writer might figure "7000 cases, hm, more? Well, to make it safe, let's round up a thousand. Looks good on paper" and write "7000-8000 cases of missing children in the US, many found in an atmosphere of further abuse, including prostitution and other life-threatening situations. The bulk of these are from what their parents describe as 'good homes'" This may be taken up by another writer, who will take 8000 as a figure, and play up "life-threatening", giving us "8-10 thousand children in life-threatening situations...or dead. There may be more." The next writer will take ten thousand as a baseline, add an arbitrary two or five thousand, and talk about "as many as fifteen thousand murdered children". By the time the next few writers take hold of this, ten thousand get tossed on...it's so easy with a word processor. And so on. Anecdotal evidence, focussing on the worst possible outcomes, help out the image of murdered children as being "a national epidemic", with additional material submitted by the more extreme evangelical factions on Satanic Ritual Abuse providing extra spice.
By the time candlelight vigils are held, newsmagazines take hold of the story, and performance artists enact symbolic performances "with a tape loop of a 3 year-old boy saying "I love you, Mommy." every fifteen seconds for a murdered child in the suburbs", the figure will be inflated to two million. This would mean that almost everyone would know (or know of) a family with a murdered child...do you?
This tendency is not only public scaremongering, but is problematical for other reasons: since the reaction to this kind of issue is to mandate funds, inspire symbolic acts, and force action NOW, instead of rationally deciding what and where the solutions lie, there is a strong tendency to simply reinforce existing patterns and institutions, thus often exacerbating underlying problems. For instance, in the child-abuse scenario above, a rational response would be to conduct a poster campaign in elementary, middle, and junior high schools, pointing out that help is available outside the home (with helpful local numbers to call), and overhaul selected child welfare offices in some smaller cities and towns. The panic response is for established, well-run child welfare offices to demand that they need more money, more funding, and well, couldn't their interim house playground do with some new equipment? Meanwhile, one or two towns over, abused kids just don't know where to turn...especially since they've been told "children's welfare is better than it's ever been." (Remember, this is only a scenario...) Worse, it destroys the crediblity of real child welfare advocates, who have to struggle to insist that there is, in fact a real problem lurking under the legend.
Just remember this, every time you hear of an unsupported figure that seems too horrific to be true....