A Springfield, Ohio, man spotted a white van—and it's always a white van—that he thought was trying to kidnap a girl. This man, Kevin Johnson, screamed at the girl that the driver was "trying to take her," and chased the vehicle away while filming the incident for social media. The van got away, but the video went viral on Facebook.
Springfield's WHIO TV followed up with the authorities to discover whether there had been any substantiated reports of attempted kidnappings. Police spokesperson Lou Turner told reporter Katy Anderson that the cops had received not a single complaint:
"We've had this for probably about a year, people saying there is a white van trying to pick up females," Lt. Lou Turner of the Springfield Police Division said. "We have never had a complaint saying somebody tried to pick them up."
Police did get a report from Johnson, but never a call or report from the girl Johnson said he saw talking to the person in the van.
When police check up on such incidents, Turner said, "it's always 'it did happen' and then you go talk to them and it's 'oh, well it happened to a friend' or 'i heard this from a friend.'"
Officers have talked to the men in the white van, who told police they are in the area for work.
"Everything so far is in the clear. Everything has been up and up," Turner said.
The two-minute story is a great piece of paranoia-puncturing—until the very end, when Anderson says, "Anyone who sees something suspicious or is a victim of a crime like this is urged to call police immediately to report it."
A crime like what?
The fact that the reporter ended her otherwise sensible story this way means that we must once again consult Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology emeritus at the University of Kent in England. He wrote Paranoid Parenting back in 2002, long before most of us (except Nick Gillespie, in 1997) started noticing the trend that would later be dubbed helicopter parenting.
But more recently Furedi wrote How Fear Works. One of the fear-reinforcing trends he noticed was the way a certain type of story becomes popular in a culture. In our culture, the story of a kid snatched off the street and sold into sex slavery is so incredibly resonant, the media considers it a sure-fire hit. From Liam Neeson movies to Law & Order episodes, it's a reliable fictional plot. But it's also a staple of the news, whether the story is real and tragic or whether there is no story there at all.
When there actually is no story, this presents a problem for the media: How do you report when nothing happened? The answer, it seems, is to report on what might have happened, had the worst-case scenario occurred.
As an example, at the beginning of every school year I wait for a story somewhere in America where a bus driver accidentally drops a kid off at the wrong bus stop.
This completely anodyne event is often reported as not just newsworthy, but a near-death experience. The reporter interviews a grim-faced cop who is just relieved nothing terrible happened and a mom thanking God that her precious darling is safe.
If you are victim of a "crime like this," then there's good news—you are not the victim of a crime at all.