Karen Shugart

(WOMENSENEWS)–When a 13-year-old Arkansas girl died at the hands of a much older man she met online, reporter Cathy Frye in Little Rock kept thinking about a series of stories she’d written nearly two years before about risks children face using the Internet.

She’d written in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that parents, despite their best efforts, often were clueless when it came to protecting their children from online predators. She reported what had happened elsewhere when unscrupulous adults duped and exploited the naive children they met online.

Now she’d seen it happen so close to home.

“It was the kind of story that haunts you,” said Frye, a 34-year-old reporter with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Seventh-grader Kacie Woody had been abducted in Dec. 3, 2002, while home alone on a cold night. The next day, authorities found her body and that of her attacker who had killed himself as well: a 47-year-old California man who had befriended Kacie by posing as a teen-age boy. She had been raped before she was murdered. The story received much local coverage, both TV and print.

Months afterward, Frye continued to hear talk about the case. And she continued to feel the tragedy carried important lessons, ones she hoped would resonate with readers.

“A lot of parents really do want to know what they should be doing, but nobody’s ever specific enough, and nobody really gives them real-life examples of how these guys work,” Frye said.

Decides to Follow Up

Frye decided the story needed closer attention. She hoped the family might feel ready to talk. She called Kacie’s father occasionally–the girl’s mother had been killed in a car crash when Kacie was 7 years old–and sent clips she hoped would demonstrate her compassion and skill. Months later, Kacie’s family and friends agreed to talk. Frye interviewed them over a period of three months. In December 2003, nearly a year after the murder, the resulting series ran four days in Arkansas’ largest newspaper.

“I really, really wanted it to make an impact, or at least make people sit back and think,” Frye said. “I think it is indicative or representative of stories that I like to do. I want to know that in some way what we’re doing does make a difference.”

It did. When The Democrat-Gazette published “Caught in the Web,” detailing how Kacie’s killer met and befriended her through instant messages and e-mails, reaction was immediate and huge.

Parents and grandparents, teachers and school counselors all filled her inbox with letters. They wanted to know what they could do to help their children. They wanted reprints. One local middle school teacher told Frye he had cancelled his lesson plan that week. Instead, he assigned students to read her series and act out scenarios of how they should confront such situations.

“That’s exactly what I was hoping for, that people would use it not just to educate themselves, but their children as well,” Frye said. “I was really, really excited at the response.”

Awards Come Pouring In

The American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, based in College Park, Md., recently awarded Frye’s series its first-place narrative feature award among newspapers with circulations between 175,001 to 300,000. The Cincinnati-based Scripps Howard Foundation made it a finalist in its public service award for newspapers with a circulation of more than 100,000.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors, based in Reston, Va., awarded her its 2004 award for non-deadline writing. She also learned that “Caught in the Web” had earned her a Livingston Award, a prestigious prize for journalists younger than 35.

Then Hollywood came calling.

Traveling as a judge for The Livingston Awards, Tom Brokaw happened to discuss the prizes with nearby seatmates Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw.

“Apparently, she is very passionate about children’s issues,” Frye said, referring to Capshaw. “She was intrigued by it.”

Now, Frye is negotiating rights to the project with DreamWorks, the Glendale, Calif.-based movie and film production company launched by Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.

Online Stalking

The Crimes Against Children Research Center reports that a 2000 federally financed study found that 1-in-5 regular Internet users ages 10 to 17 were sexually solicited via the Internet in the previous year and 1-in-4 had an unwanted exposure to pictures of naked people or people having sex in the last year. And 1-in-17 was threatened or harassed.

But such statistics, according to Frye, don’t explain exactly how adult molesters and killers can extract information and trust from children and teen-agers. That’s why she pieced together Kacie’s e-mails and instant messages with friends’ recollections.

“I wanted people to get a grasp at how kids think. Why they’re drawn to chat rooms, why the most obedient children in the world would disregard a parent’s rules when they go online,” Frye said.

While many news reports have detailed how adults have convinced children and teens to run away with them, Frye said, Kacie’s ending was even more terrifying for parents. She had been stalked and taken from her own home.

“I don’t think a lot of parents are aware that you can tell your children not to trust people, not to give out too much information and so on and so on, but the fact is they are still children,” Frye said. “And most children are trusting and they’re dealing with people online who are extremely savvy and know how to extract information without even being aware that it’s happening.”

Frye entered journalism as a copy editor for Corpus-Christi Caller Times, an 80,000-circulation paper, after graduating from the University of North Texas in 1993. She moved from one Texas town to another, abandoning the desk-bound work of editing for the role of roving general assignment reporter, before coming to Arkansas as a full-time reporter five years ago. But her goal, she said, is the same as the first day she started.

“To me what’s most rewarding is to know that you’ve reached people in some way, whether it’s just provoking emotion if somebody reads a story, or spurring people into action,” Frye said. “Just as long as people read and they care.”

Karen Shugart is a journalist in Georgia.

For more information:

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette–“Caught in the Web”:

U.S. Department of Justice–
Internet Crimes Against Children:

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