By Randi Schmelzer
The week after Thanksgiving, newspapers across the country made space to call out
the disappearance - now murder - of Emily Sander, an outgoing, well-liked, and ambitious freshman at Butler Community College in El Dorado, KS.
It wasn't until a few days later, however, when reports began to surface that 18-year-old Sander was living "a double life as an Internet porn star," that the media mayhem really began.
"It's such an ongoing problem that media sensationalizes crime, especially when it's violent crime against women," says Jennifer Pozner, executive director of media analysis, education, and advocacy organization Women In Media and News [WIMN]. Add in the sex angle, she says, and "media latch on like gangbusters."
Such sensationalism "does not help us as news consumers, does not help us get the information we need," she adds. "It's not reflective of what's newsworthy and it's not journalistically ethical."
The question of ethics has come up repeatedly since November 28, when Sander's former roommate told the Associated Press that her friend supplemented her income by posing for dirty pictures on a soft-core porn Web site, ZoeyZane.com. "She enjoyed it," the friend noted. "She wanted to be in the movies."
But Sander was hardly a "porn star." The site had only been on-line since late September. And when word of her murder spread through the press, the company for which "Zoey" stripped replaced the site with an open letter to the media, blaming its sensationalistic coverage for turning "this into a PR feeding frenzy for the sole purpose of creating drama
to draw in viewers."
El Dorado police, too, say heightened media coverage has hindered their crime-solving abilities.
"The issue of the Internet and the spin-off of that has been literally crippling our investigation," Police Chief Tom Boren told the AP, insisting there was no evidence to connect Sander's Zoey-persona activities to her disappearance.
That's par for the course, says Jonathan Bernstein, president of Los Angeles-based Bernstein Crisis Management.
"Any detective will tell you that in a case that's been sensationalized, they get all kinds of crank calls and false leads," he adds.
But in terms of eyeball-drawing effectiveness, highly sensationalized reporting "attracts more viewers and sells more papers," Bernstein notes. "What's happened to the media in the past 20 years is what I call [its] National Enquirer-ization. That's what happens in every paper now."
Gregg Olsen, true-crime author, analyst, and co-editor of CrimeRant.com, agrees.
"We've really seen these stories get used and chewed up by the media," he says. "I think
it's because we've turned crime into entertainment."
As well as drawing ratings, Olsen says, when news magazines and papers feature high-profile, sensational crime stories, they also draw people looking to benefit.
"You get people all of a sudden wanting to be on TV, wanting money," he explains. "Everybody assumes their story is worth something to the media [and] somebody is going to pay them."
It's that mentality - and the press' willingness to cater to it - that can manipulate public perception.
"Porn star or not, that's what they call her now," Olsen says, regarding Sander/Zoey. "We already have formed our opinions of what kind of girl she [was]."
That lowest-common-denominator reporting translates to little more than mere shock value and side-of-the road rubbernecking, WINM's Pozner says. To inform the public about what violent crimes against women really are, what's really needed is societal education and serious investigation - not lurid sensationalism.
What was newsworthy about Sander's disappearance and murder was that she disappeared and was murdered. Among the things she did in life was pose nude on a soft-core porn Web site; that may or may not be relevant to the case.
Sensationalizing this story or others like it, Pozner says, is just "a small, small leap from the headlines... to Law & Order Special Victims Unit story of the week."