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YouTuber Joey Saladino (aka: Joey Salads) has caused quite a clatter with his viral video in which he and a very cute dog lure three young children from a playground while their horrified mothers watch.
"How often do you tell your kids not to talk to strangers?" Saladino asks the mothers. All the time, they insist.
"So if I go over to your kid right now, will he or she talk to me or run away?" he asks. The moms are all sure their kids won't talk to him. But not only do the kids talk to him, they leave with him.
"Over 700 children are abducted a day. That's over a quarter million a year. Are your kids safe?" Saladino asks at the end of the video.
But do you know what else is scary? The fact that people will watch a video on YouTube, a platform on which anyone can post, and immediately accept it as truth. Even scarier? When the media perpetuates that belief:
I don't want to diminish the semi-helpfulness of this video, which if nothing else serves as a reminder for parents to talk to their kids about strangers. But can we all step back and put on our thinking caps for a minute?
First, let's look at the video itself. A stranger walks up to a mom on a playground bench, sits uncomfortably close to her, says he's filming a social experiment and he'd like to try it on her kid.
All the moms say, "Sure, go ahead!" Would you? If a stranger approached you and said he wanted access to your kid, wouldn't you want to know a few things? What kind of social experiment? What are you going to do with this information? Are you filming my child? Who are you and what exactly are you doing again?
The kids are playing nearby. Do they see this man talking to Mommy? Does that mean he's OK? The kids on the playground are in a totally different state of mind than if, say, they were lost on the street. They feel safe because mommy is right there. And, hey, she's even talking to the guy with the cute dog!
How is this being filmed, anyway? Is there someone standing by holding a video camera? A mobile phone? Is that obvious to the parent or child?
By giving us one type of setting, and one type of mother, and one type of child, and one type of abduction, and one type of number, of course we're going to jump to the conclusion that the number is referring to this particular method of abduction.
It's the media's job to provide answers to these questions, not just lazily post a video and tell everyone it's terrifying.
Something just doesn't smell right about this whole thing. The moms are too quick to shake his hand, too quick to answer his questions, too quick to say yes, too quick to put their hands over their mouths in horror.
It's almost as if they expected him.
Assuming everything is not scripted, how many kids refused to talk to him? How many kids ran back to their moms and asked if it's OK to go see the dogs? Who knows? We don't get to see those parts. It's an edited YouTube video, folks. By a random guy whose biggest claim to fame is posting prank videos on YouTube.
Let's talk about sourcing. "Over 700 children are abducted a day," Saladino tells us. Oh! we say. That's horrible! 700? I had no idea!
We need to learn to let our skepticism be stronger than our fear. Where does this guy get this number? He doesn't say. Is it 700 in the U.S.? In the world? He doesn't say. How are they abducted? By family members, by acquaintances, by total strangers, hell ... by militias? He doesn't say.
So, I'm just going to assume that he is talking about kids in the U.S., because I have nothing else to go on and that's where he's filming and, frankly, I find this video rather insulting to kids who are in a lot more danger than those on a playground in suburban America, like those kids taken by Boko Haram in Nigeria, for instance.
And I'm going to assume that he's talking about kids being abducted in just this way, because that is all he shows us before spouting off this number.
Do you see? By giving us one type of setting, and one type of mother, and one type of child, and one type of abduction, and one type of number, of course we're going to jump to the conclusion that the number is referring to this particular method of abduction.
But the real facts don't back it up. The Polly Klaas Foundation reports that 100 children (a fraction of 1 percent of all abductions) are kidnapped in this way. One hundred. For the whole year. As opposed to 255,500 per year, as Saladino would have us believe.
The truth is the vast majority of kidnappings are carried out by members of the child's own family. Then there are kidnappings by friends or acquaintances, kidnappings that are actually runaway teens, kidnappings that turn out not to be kidnappings but are still labeled as "missing."
Do you want to know why this video works? It works because it plays into one of our biggest fears. It is an easy leap for our anxious brains to make. And it plays to the audience.
Ratings. Six million hits later, that's just what Joey Saladino got with his unscientific, edited "social experiment."
Remember the University of Virginia case, in which Rolling Stone reported a horrendous gang rape on campus as if it were fact? And it turned out that it wasn't fact? But when that story first broke, everyone believed it. Even the media. First, we believed Rolling Stone, because it is a magazine that has done reputable investigative journalism in the past and because it has a fact-checking system in place. But we also believed it because we wanted to believe it. It validated our fears. It played into our pre-conceived prejudices about fraternities and rape on campus. So we ran with it. We ran with it until people started poking around at facts that didn't quite fit together, and then the whole story unraveled.
But the real facts don't back it up.
This video does the same thing. We know having our child being abducted is one of our biggest fears, and we believe it happens—probably more often than is true. See that? This video just validated what we already believe, what we already worry about. And we just swallowed it: hook, line and sinker.
But, even if we are fooled—and why shouldn't we be fooled when a media source we trust is reporting something—the media should not be. It is the media's job to check facts, assertions, claims. It is the media's job to get to the truth of the matter and report it without bias. To take a video from YouTube and present it as fact is not only irresponsible, it's scaremongering.
As a journalist for 25 years, I'm ashamed by this.