Covering The Death Of A Beauty Queen p.8

By: Stacy Jones NOTHING IN the Dec. 27 articles of the Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News or Daily Camera of Boulder that dealt with the murder of 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey hinted at the media circus to come.
In fact, all three papers misspelled the first name of the child the world would soon know much too well.
The ensuing weeks would make up for lost hype as the newspaper trio ran stories every day thereafter.
The Camera, which couldn't be reached for comment, and the Post, both broadsheets, played a majority of their articles on the front page. The tabloid News consistently played the story on page 4A or 5A.
"It's only been the lead story once or twice," said News managing editor John Temple.
Added News editor Robert Burdick, "Any story has to earn its way to the front page."
Chris Lopez, Post assistant city editor and manager of the Ramsey murder coverage, attributed the difference in placement to formatting. The Post likes to have two local stories on the front page while the News prefers to put its top local stories on the inside.
Much of the coverage dealt with new developments, however minor, profiles of the millionaire parents, and odes to what neighbors and friends called the perfect family.

No speculation
Speculation was one element missing from the Colorado papers' reports.
"I want to be able to look back on this story and say all down the line we handled this responsibly because I don't know where this story will end," said Temple.
Once the vast scope of the murder case was understood, Burdick vowed not to resort to tabloid measures to entice readers.
"We're not going to speculate and we don't want to be a conduit for speculation," he explained.
It wasn't just talk. Burdick held a story that had a former law enforcement official deducing who killed JonBenet.

Reporters as sources
Another oddity of the situation had hometown reporters becoming sources to out-of-town reporters and assuming the role of celebrity through appearances on radio and television talk shows.
Neither Lopez nor Burdick were enthusiastic about the practice. Reporters taking part in personal appearances were limited to talking only about what they had already written in their respective papers.
If a reporter gets caught up in the media frenzy and crosses the line, "I'll pull them off the story," said Burdick.
Although an accurate count of news organizations following the story is sketchy, approximately 70 U.S. news organizations have contacted the Boulder County sheriff's department seeking details, this in addition to inquiries from the international media.
Lopez has been interviewed more than he cares to remember, including calls from the BBC and Australian and Japanese news outlets.
"It's pretty phenomenal," he said.
Two weeks ago, Boulder Police Chief Tom Koby held a round-table discussion with reporters from five local newspapers.
He used the occasion, in part, to scold the media. "Why has the media given so much attention to the case?
"If you and your colleagues would like to help us, back off a little bit and give us some room to do our jobs."

Overblown coverage?
While it's not a stretch to say that mainstream newspapers haven't gone to the tawdry lengths of some magazines or television broadcasts, the question remains: Did the JonBenet Ramsey story warrant such coverage? Or were newspapers playing to society's "Dallas"-syndrome: the elevation and captivation of individuals with money, power and good looks?
Criticism that the murder wouldn't have received a fraction of the attention had the victim been poor or from a minority group illicited varying degrees of agreement from local and national press people.
USA Today editor Dave Mazzarella said that a major reason his paper has written about the murder, including a long profile in mid-January, is because it dealt with a "victim who was in the spotlight, the family was prominent and the circumstances bizarre."
It was also correct, he said, that socioeconomic and racial factors have altered how the story has been handled by the media.
"There is a difference in the type of coverage," he said.
Minus the blond hair and fairy-tale existence, would the media have devoured the story with the same hearty appetite?
"That's the shame and ultimately unanswerable question of the mainstream press," said Mazzarella. "It's a terrible problem."
From where Lopez sits, there's no problem at all.
The Post is not "sensationalizing this story because she's a white girl in a prominent white family," he explained. "I've thought about it a lot.
"I don't see that we're doing anything differently than if it was a young, black kid," he said.
As proof, he cited examples of how the Post has given widespread play to the murder of black kids.
"We went through that whole gang murder" period, said Lopez. "Many of those stories played on 1A."
Burdick accepted some of the coverage criticism as valid, but came down on the side that newspapers have to satisfy public demand.
"What we do is respond to where the interest lies," he said. "It's not that we ignore other things, but there is a great hunger for this story.
"The little girl has earned celebrity status," said Burdick.
"In our society, celebrities do get more attention."
"A newspaper has to deal with what captures people's imagination," said Mazzarella, while admitting that the press "can impose a story on the people's imagination."
The intrigue surrounding the case is one factor all agree supplies added life to an already vibrant story.
"These little mysteries inside these larger mysteries is what makes it interesting. Both the way the police and the family are handling it," said Lopez.
The death of a beauty queen, commented Burdick, "attracts a great deal of attention."
# Editor & Publisher n February 1, 1997


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