"Kidnappings are nuts," a U.S. News colleague told me when I asked him why we are all so obsessed with the rescue of three women kidnapped 10 years ago as well as one of their daughters. Their escape from captivity - which allegedly included rape, beatings, pregnancies and murder – has dominated newspaper headlines, cable coverage and social media this past week, and will likely hold our attention for many more weeks to come.
"These things are always quite a shock or a surprise," says Paula Fass, a history professor at University of California—Berkeley and author of "Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America," noting that kidnappings themselves are rare, with recoveries being even rarer. "Here, one of the things that make this dazzling is that there are three girls, not just one, three girls who were taken and kept by this guy," Fass says.
"There's some pretty important issues and for the public, it's sort of, 'Pay attention to what's going on around you'," says Joan Deppa, a media ethics professor at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications.
The national hysteria inspired by kidnapping can be traced back to the case of Charles Ross, a child kidnapped in 1874. His father refused to pay the ransom, sparking a national controversy. He then wrote a book detailing his experience and gaining unprecedented publicity for his son's case. The media coverage mobilized communities across the country to join the search, and though Ross was never found, it changed the way the public viewed kidnappings.
Since then, other kidnapped children captured national headlines - Charles Lindbergh's son being perhaps the most famous. According to Fass, it was not until the 1980s that the recovery of kidnapping victims became national news. Before then, there were no national statistics or databases for kidnappings, and the cases were usually handled by local police. "In the past, the police was terrible at kidnappings, really terrible," Fass explains. She says the authorities did not always consider kidnapping cases a top priority and often didn't believe parents, assuming that the child had just run away.
A few other headline-grabbing recoveries of kidnapped children – Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Lee Dugard being the most recent before the Cleveland discovery – challenged the assumptions that if a child was not found within a short period of disappearing, he or she was dead. "Because we have been assuming that these children have been lost forever, [finding a victim] comes with a shock," says Fass, "there's a kind of a mass exhilaration."
When authorities fail to find kidnapped children – particularly when it's discovered that they were close to the location from where they disappeared - the public becomes only more invested. The Cleveland victims were only rescued when neighbors heard Berry's screams. "I think in the Cleveland case there is still some questions and from what I am reading in the media, in the minds of a number of people," says Deppa. "What exactly were the Cleveland police doing and not doing in this particular situation?"
Fass says there is an "implicit compact" between the media and victims' families when these stories blow up the national news. "The families need the advertisement of the case, so if there is any chance of spotting the child, someone in the public can be very useful," she says. "The public can be turned into a kind of volunteer army."
Meanwhile, the media gets story after story, with coverage that can last for months. "These cases are exactly what the press needs to stay alive," says Fass. "It feasts on these kinds of cases."
The Cleveland kidnapping "is an intrinsically sensational story, it doesn't need to be sensationalized much more. It just needs to be publicized," she says. The sexual exploitation of the girls by their alleged captor "attracts all kinds of delirious news and attention."