Media Minefield: Amber Alert — room to improve

It was after 9:00 pm when our TV went from Project Runway on Lifetime to black. An alert started scrolling across the screen. In all white letters, it read “Child Abduction Alert.” The words on the screen didn’t change, but a man started speaking in a voice that had a Vincent Price vibe to it. He said the city (Brooklyn Park), the girl’s name (Dolla Yang), her age (16), the suspect (a 17-year-old male) and described the suspect vehicle (blue sedan). The scroll continued. No picture. No concern. No map. Nothing. Just white text on black screen with creepy quiet man voice. After a couple minutes, the show returned.

I turned to Twitter for updated info and discovered a few key details: the teen was seen being shoved into the sedan at 3:00 pm. WHAT? Someone saw a teen get shoved into a car in the afternoon and the BCA issued an alert six hours later. Then, the media got editors, writers, producers, directors, reporters and/or web producers involved to get the information to the public. All of it took time.

Let me preface all this by saying: I pray that Dolla is found safe and sound and returns home soon.

As a mom, I was upset and furious by the alert. If my kid was missing, I would want the alarms sounded immediately. Show pictures of my kid so people can start searching. Let me get on TV and plead to the person who has him. Interrupt shows, blanket social media, get a video to go viral… whatever it takes; I would want authorities to move quickly.

As a journalist who covered the beginning of the Amber Alert laws in more than one state, I realize it isn’t that simple. Getting an Amber Alert issued takes time and energy. In Minnesota, there are several standards that a local police department must meet before officers can contact the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). Once the BCA determines the case meets the criteria, the Amber Alert is issued and the media is made aware of the situation. According to the BCA’s website, here are the questions that must be answered before an alert is issued:
1. Is the abduction one in which the victim is 17 years of age or younger?
• If yes, answer question 2.
• If no, answer question 3.
2. Do you believe the child to be in imminent danger of serious bodily harm or death?
• If YES, ACTIVATE THE AMBER PLAN and the MN Crime Alert Network.
• If NO, DO NOT ACTIVATE THE AMBER PLAN, go to questions 3.
Please provide the following information to the BCA:
o When/where child was abducted
o Description of child
o Description of abductor
o Description of vehicle, if involved
o Last known direction of travel
o Is there reason to believe the suspect has a relationship to the victim
o Number to contact for general information/questions
Law enforcement should carefully consider not activating the plan if there is no information to send out.
3. Could the assistance of the public, including other law enforcement agencies, businesses and the media assist in locating the individual who does not qualify for the Amber Alert?
• If NO, do not activate the Minnesota Crime Alert Network.
Any non-familial case in which an individual is abducted and the public can assist will trigger the activation of either the Amber Alert and/or the Minnesota Crime Alert Network to educate the public to assist in locating that individual.

Here’s the rub: the Amber Alert is most effective when people are notified early, but it takes time to determine if a child is really in danger.

The MN alert will most likely get the most immediate media coverage in the area near where Dolla was last seen. Now, six hours later, people in Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Canada should also be put on alert. Clearly, we don’t want Amber Alerts sounded haphazardly, but we do want the public to be notified before the child could be smuggled out of the country.

Is it time to revisit the standards? Should alerts be sounded more quickly? Obviously the Amber Alert is a fantastic and critical system, but is it as effective as it could be? Let’s answer these questions before a child’s life is on the line.

Again, I don’t have all the facts in the possible abduction of Dolla Yang. It’s possible that the authorities weren’t notified until 8:00 pm and the alert did happen quickly. I’m doubtful since there was a witness to the incident who likely notified authorities. It’s always bothered me that so many standards must be met before real searching can begin. Let’s say a child is taken from his/her front yard and no one sees the actual abduction. There would not be a clear suspect and no one could know if the child is in danger, therefore an Amber Alert could not be issued. Really?

Regardless, when an Amber Alert is issued, cable channels must have a more effective way to notify viewers. No excuse for what aired on Lifetime tonight. You can’t be on the lookout for a child if you have no idea what he or she looks like.

UPDATE – Dolla was found safe four hours after the Amber Alert was issued – ten hours after she was abducted. A suspect is in custody.


This post was written by Kristi Piehl and originally published on Media Minefield. Follow Kristi on Twitter: @mediaminefield

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Lance Groth on 08/26/2011 - 01:12 pm.

    I was wondering more about the antiquated means of displaying the information. The voice-over played through once, followed by at least 2 minutes of silence with only the black screen and the slowly scrolling text feed.

    All of the information could have been displayed on one screen. The information would be more easily and more rapidly comprehended by reading a paragraph on the screen, the same way we read everything else in life, perhaps with a map displayed to show the locations mentioned. The entire message could have been communicated more effectively and in only a third of the time. Is it really that hard to whip up a full screen message rather than a text-crawl? I guess I’m spoiled by the effectiveness of web-based communication, but the whole thing seemed very slow and primitive.

    I wasn’t aware the information was 6 hours old. Obviously they need to work on refining the system.

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