The Media's Whodunit

(AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)
It's a saga that plays out on the media stage over and over, and over again with high-profile murder stories. And the coverage often follows the same rubric – explosive new information at every turn … only later followed by a dose of skepticism. The JonBenet Ramsey case -- revisiting the realm of intense public attention since news broke that John Mark Karr confessed to killing the young girl -- offers an obvious example, and critics have already been quick to point it out.

One popular critique making the rounds right now – and they are pouring out pretty quickly -- that the media was far too premature in accepting the latest information as the story's final chapter. Editor & Publisher notes some of the early news coverage: "The front page headline in New York's Daily News read: 'SOLVED.' The main arrest story in Denver's Rocky Mountain News opened: 'The decade-long search for JonBenet Ramsey's killer came to a startling end in Thailand on Wednesday.'" And from others: "The Boston Herald editorial was titled: 'A tragedy nears an end.' The Denver Post carried a headline: 'Family's years of fear, anger come to an end.' But a few hours later another headline there read: 'Cracks in confession fuel skepticism.'"

The Denver Post's Joanne Ostrow offered more on news outlets succumbing to the story's "lurid pull":

This week, certain media outposts got ahead of the story.

"Solved!" screamed Thursday's New York Daily News.

Not so fast.

By mid-day Thursday, the Smoking Gun website posted JonBenét Ramsey autopsy reports suggesting that the claims by the newly named suspect in the case may be incorrect.

As news broke that John Mark Karr, arrested Wednesday in Bangkok, claimed to have killed Ramsey, broadcasters dutifully reminded viewers he is innocent until proven guilty.

He may be "a fake," Shepard Smith said on Fox News.

Some were less charitable in their assessments. Los Angeles Times television critic Paul Brownfield pointed a finger at cable news: "As quickly as it had cast suspicion on the parents 10 years ago, cable news quickly set about trying and convicting Karr, even though the leading practitioner of open-and-shut outrage, CNN Headline News' Nancy Grace, was on vacation, and little in the way of hard facts was being released."

Brownfield is not the only one who thought certain members of the media owed the Ramsey's an apology. Slate's Jack Shafer rounded up a few of the most recent exhibits of those "baying their apologies to the Ramseys on behalf of their colleagues or society at large." But those mea culpas too, are premature, writes Shafer.

If you're down on your knees for me, gentlemen, please stand up. We have nothing to apologize for. The riotous coverage of the endless murder investigation won't be recorded as journalism's finest hour, but the story deserved the punishing scrutiny the press gave it.
Shafer notably mentions the well-documented incompetence of the Boulder, Colo., police and prosecutors, who "botched the investigation from the get-go" and "gave the story additional legs."

What we're seeing right now could accurately be titled a media frenzy. And in that environment, there is nothing more apt to produce misleading information than an absence of information for hungry reporters. CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen writes today that Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy "said all the right things" during her news conference Thursday by not sharing with reporters "anything specific or insightful or profound at all about the arrest or the case," which is "precisely what Colorado's ethical rules require." Nonetheless, he continues,

"Unfortunately for Lacy — and for any other person who would rather wait to see the fight unfold before its winner is declared — the silence of Boulder County officials already has created a media vacuum of speculation and rumor, of presumption and implication, that swirled around Karr on Thursday even as the details of his transfer from Thailand to America were being hammered out."
So as long as that silence persists, we're likely to see more of the coverage that leans more toward the speculative than the factual. And in today's landscape of seemingly instantaneous media criticism – there will be a host of critics to jump on it.