Kidnap alert systems raise hope ... and questions

Lawmakers push for nationwide hookup, but there are ethical hurdles.

On the heels of recent high-profile child abductions in several states, the push is on nationwide enlist more formally both media and public in nabbing the perpetrators.

The increasing use of one such emergency alert system – known as the "Amber Alert Plan" – is being credited with the safe return of 20 children since 1997, including two teenage girls rescued Aug. 1 after a freeway sighting led authorities to their kidnapper.

The success of the program has sparked a push by lawmakers and child advocates to hook up the whole nation to child abduction communications networks. Some law enforcement agencies in 42 states have used the system, but in only 14 states are all law enforcement agencies connected.

"This system more than any other single thing, can result in an abducted child being brought safely home. We know it works and it should be nationwide," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California said Wednesday, announcing legislation to help expand the child abduction communications network throughout the US.

US Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft this week also supported the expansion of the program. And the Polly Klaas Foundation in California launched a campaign yesterday to push governors of all 50 states to mandate such statewide plans by executive order. California itself is poised to pass a bill that will require law enforcement agencies to participate.

The rush to institute such programs is sparking debate on how to implement them – how broadcast and other media can or should participate.

Named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped and murdered in Arlington, Texas, the Amber plan enlists voluntary partnerships between law enforcers and broadcasters to activate an urgent bulletin in the most serious child-abuse cases. Using the Federal Communication Commission's Emergency Alert System (EAS), broadcasters air a description of the missing child and the suspected abductor, similar to a procedure used during severe weather emergencies.

The idea raises concerns about the role of public and media in coordinating properly with law enforcement without jeopardizing the safety, privacy, and other rights of minors involved in such incidents. There are also concerns the system could become overused – not only taxing the patience and resources of broadcasters but diluting the effectiveness of the program.

"Mostly this new use of technology has been extraordinarily helpful," says Cinny Kennard, a journalism ethics expert at the University of Southern California. "But it can also put law enforcement in the Catch-22 of needing to get names and pictures disseminated in a hurry, without violating the privacy of victims."

The California case raised red flags because the two teenage girls rescued from their assailant had been raped by him. The information about the rape, given by a county official, came after photos of the girls were aired throughout the state.

The inadvertent violation of the girls' privacy also breached media ethics. News organizations do not, as a rule, reveal the names of rape victims, both as a concern for privacy, but also to eliminate the fear of publicity that discourages victims from reporting a rape.

Other ethicists worry about the possibility of abuse by competing news agencies outside the geographic area where abductions have occurred. They say stations capitalizing on a community interest as well as community fears, can sensationalize the event for ratings and generate society-wide dread that such incidents are rising, when in reality they are declining.

"I just wonder if we in the media have done a very good job of accurately portraying the risk of abduction to children," says Kelly McBride, of the Poynter Institute, a media research organization in St. Petersburg, Fla. "The overwhelming feeling in the public is that these incidents are on the rise, when ... we know that they are two-thirds less than 20 years ago."

Media outlets chastened by the California incident call for better coordination. "This is going to take a lot of training for law enforcement and media to get it right, there are a lot of gray areas," says Bryan Erickson, of radio station KTRH–AM and a board member for the Houston AMBER plan. He says Americans are more sensitive to on-air alerts since 9/11, so broadcasters must be more careful not to saturate their markets with warnings that "will freak people out."

Like others, Mr. Erickson says parents must assume responsibility too, helping the media "know when to end the story" and stop the flow of private information.

National officials say that compared with the benefits, such obstacles are small and will lessen as more states get used to using the system. They also say that alerts should only be called for the most dire cases: where abductees are under 17, circumstances indicate the child is in immediate danger of serious bodily harm or death, and where there is enough descriptive information about the child, abductor, or suspect's vehicle to believe an immediate broadcast will really help. Only 80 such alerts have been issued since 1997.

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