Old habits die hard in Ramsey coverage

The media firestorm that followed the arrest of a suspect in the 10-year-old murder case of JonBenet Ramsey was not entirely unexpected.

The media firestorm that followed the arrest of a suspect in the 10-year-old murder case of JonBenet Ramsey was not entirely unexpected.

After all, this case set a precedent - and the standard - for media coverage of missing or murdered girls, many of whom tend to be white. Without it, Natalee Holloway would likely have not been a fixture on cable news, nor would her recovery have become the crusade of such personalities as Nancy Grace and Rita Cosby.

"[JonBenet] was the prequel to Natalee Holloway," notes Matthew Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "She was the original Elizabeth Smart."

So, while not surprising, the reporting of this break in the case has followed the pattern that the media have established in the past few years: a rush to judgment. Whether John Mark Karr is guilty of the crime, he was all but convicted in the hours after the story broke. Even before details about his past were made public, newspapers, Web sites, and TV shows around the country acted as if the secret to one of life's greatest mysteries had finally been revealed.

CNN and MSNBC provided wall-to-wall coverage of the "event," with the former dedicating a special edition of Anderson Cooper 360ยก to dissecting the latest development in the case. ABC's Primetime also devoted a portion of its program to the development on the day the story broke, unnecessarily broadcasting live from the house in Colorado where the Ramseys lived at the time of the murder.

On the day after Karr was arrested in Thailand, the cover of the New York Daily News read, "Solved!" Really? Without a trial or any DNA evidence? Speculation is of course one thing, but the initial reports on the arrest displayed an air of certainty that seemed strangely out of place. And perhaps it's only fitting. Ten years ago, the media were just as quick to assume that parents John and Patsy Ramsey were responsible for their daughter's death.

"Hearing an admission of guilt, they had to run with it," notes Felling. "It's understandable. Journalists spend so much time hearing people denying guilt of various offenses, they don't know to double-check an admission of guilt."

It didn't hurt that the story broke in August - a normally quiet season for TV news especially - a week after the latest terror plot was exposed and with a lull in the fighting between Israel and Lebanon.

However, Felling notes, while the media quickly jumped on the story, they were also quick to back down once it became clear that there were some questions about the suspect's credibility.

"In the past, the media allowed these stories to build a momentum of their own that they refused to slow down," he says. "But with the John Mark Karr story, they hit the brakes in less than a day."

For the cable news networks in particular, the change in reporting style was especially quick. "By the evening newscasts, they had already tossed a question mark onto their onscreen graphic," Felling notes.

And in the days since the story first broke, both print and broadcast outlets have almost tried too hard to erase their initial rush to judgment by bringing on an onslaught of forensic psychiatrists to furiously debate the mental health of the suspect.

But this is just the beginning of the story. No matter what the outcome, it is sure to be one that the news media will cover - while reverting to their old habits.

"The news media in the real-time information age has developed an allergy to the words 'please stay tuned,'" Felling says. "What they sell is certainty. They don't sell complexity and maybes."

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