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Before the work week begins: Wrapping up ‘PredatorGate’

Various verdicts on the last week’s Fox9 child-luring controversy.
By David Brauer

Last week was pretty much consumed with back-and-forth over Fox9’s abortive attempt to lure kids to unmarked SUVs, but the dénouement offered some interesting commentary that I’d meant to pass along Friday, only to run out of mental gas.

In the heat of the moment last week, Fox9 reporter Trish Van Pilsum was trying to recall other examples of mobile parent-approved child-luring; fellow professional Art Hughes found this Dateline: NBC example from March 2007. (Sorry, not embeddable.)

The car in question is stationary, though Hughes swears he’s seen the moving-violation version. He writes: “Horrible, yes. New idea? No.”

Van Pilsum’s former colleague Esme Murphy blogged that the problem wasn’t Fox9’s tactic, it was the timing:

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Fox9 was apparently considering doing this story the day after Edina police had informed the community and the school district that the suspect in the case had been released. … Everywhere in Edina Monday parents were telling their kids, “remember the guy we told you was in jail, well guess what — he’s out”! … Needless to say everyone from the Chief to parents I spoke with on Monday was on edge.

The very next day, Tuesday came the fast breaking developments in Reportergate featuring Trish Van Pilsum arguably one of the best reporters in the Twin Cities. Trish has done outstanding work on child safety issues. I remember a child luring story she did years ago that contained some of the same elements of “let’s see what kids will say when approached by a stranger”. But with a police department and a community on a razors edge of fear and anger at the lack of charges, it wouldn’t take much to ignite a firestorm.

Blogging at the Pioneer Press’ Minnmoms site, reporter Molly Millett recalled her own near-abduction experience 35 years ago (involving cigarettes and a puppy) and concludes what Van Pilsum was attempting to dramatize was eminently worth it:

What I’m really trying to get at here is this: I think Van Pilsum has a point. Thinking back on my own experience, I have to wonder what my own daughter, now the age I was back in 1974, or my almost 7-year-old son would do if they were approached by a stranger wanting directions — or if this stranger promised a glimpse of a cute puppy or kitty. I’m afraid they’d totally fall for it. I’m really not sure how to teach them to ignore their childlike, trusting nature. So, while it might not be the most politically correct of stories, I believe that Van Pilsum’s efforts could have been educational for me — and for all of us.

So here’s my call as a mom and a reporter: Go for it, Trish.

Another reader says what all these stories regularly lack is context, pointing to the essay, “The Cost of Fearing Strangers,” by the Freakonomics boys (via local security expert Bruce Scheier):

As we wrote in Freakonomics, most people are pretty terrible at risk assessment. They tend to overstate the risk of dramatic and unlikely events at the expense of more common and boring (if equally devastating) events….

How about child abduction? Isn’t that the classic stranger crime? This 2007 Slate article explains that of the missing children in one recent year, “203,900 were family abductions, 58,200 were nonfamily abductions, and only 115 were ‘stereotypical kidnappings,’ defined in one study 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 the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed.’”

Of course, neither Schneier or Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner and Steven Leavitt are moms (or in all likelihood, local TV news watchers).

Finally, I heard KFAN’s Dan Barreiro attempted to complete Van Pilsum’s mission, but I can’t find the bit on the station’s website. If there’s a link out there, let me know and I’ll update.