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Nowadays, even bad news can be helpful

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By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 23, 2002


"Gee," said the attractive young woman pushing the newspaper (a competitor's in this instance) away from her, "a bear attacks a baby, another kid kidnapped, the news is so negative."

I was tempted to give her my "good news-bad news" lecture, pointing out that the page she was pointing to contained as much good, or neutral, news as it did bad and that the bad was catching her eye because it is the bad stuff we have to look out for.

But I was tired and I am always aware that young women in bars assume that the offering of a conversational gambit is either lecherous or boring or both, so I kept it to myself.

But I couldn't help thinking about a year ago this week when most of us couldn't go into the water without hearing thrumming cello music and imagining a massive shark just waiting for us to become lunch.

The word "another," with increasing emphasis, was entering into each subsequent report of sharks attacking bathers. And the evening news (and morning papers) were starting to sound and read like the first 15 minutes of a science fiction movie, where the unsuspecting public keeps reacting with puzzlement to the horror we already know is coming for them.

In that case it was a combination of two things, the perennially slow summer news season combined with the fact that we are still climbing out of our cul-de-sacs on the information superhighway and don't fully realize the impact of what was once regional news becoming national.

Then Sept. 11 came and reminded us of what real horror is, those of us in the news biz had real news to report and the rest of us no longer needed to titillate ourselves with perceiving statistical normality as threat.

Now it is the kidnapping and sometimes rape and murder of children that catches our attention.

The truth is that those things have always happened, but, unless they were nearby, nobody knew about it.

Back in the 1980s, when some people were trying to make money off of the phenomenon of missing children, I weeded through the figures. Alarmists were claiming up to 2-million missing children when, in fact, there were only about 100,000, including teenage runaways and those grabbed by non-custodial parents. The total number of children missing under mysterious circumstances and believed to have been at risk of murder was closer to 5,000 at any given time, and 98 percent of those cases, one way or another, were resolved within a few days.

The 2-million figure began with a politician in need of an issue who had a staff aide do a highly unscientific survey of what some police chiefs "thought" their caseloads were. The figure was later hyped again by those raising money. "It was 11/2-million and it is a growing problem," one of them told me, "so we assume it is 2-million by now."

Five thousand is a scary enough figure, but the truth is that 20 years ago people in Florida didn't hear about children kidnapped in California, and vice versa.

But now CNN brings other communities' tragedies into the living rooms of the global village, and we therefore find ourselves terrified by what has been a fairly common occurrence all along.

Is that necessarily a bad thing?

No.

Criminologists believe that serial killers are not the fairly recent phenomenon that they seem to be. They probably have always been among us, but since there was not, until about 20 years ago, a method for law enforcement agencies to share information on specific crimes, a serial killer could avoid detection simply by moving from one jurisdiction to another.

Those days are gone now because the same information technology that scares us regularly also imparts information about the nature of some crimes, and, as in the part of the Amber Alert system created in Texas, helps solve them more quickly -- sometimes quickly enough to save lives.

So, if I had imposed my views on the young woman in the bar, it would have been that all the news isn't bad; sometimes the bad news seems worse than it is, and, like it or not, you usually need to know about the bad stuff.

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