A Tragedy's Lessons

JonBenet Ramsey case puts spotlight on news media, beauty circuit

Lessons should be learned from tragedy, and there are lessons aplenty for our society from the cruel murder of JonBenet Ramsey. The six-year-old girl was assaulted and strangled in her Boulder, Colo., home Christmas night. The case, as yet unsolved, remains headline news.

But even though the outcome is unclear, we could benefit and improve the way we conduct our affairs by a thoughtful examination of the situation.

First there is the press. The manner in which it has conducted itself in its cutthroat, competitive coverage of the story won't make for a glorious chapter in the history of our profession.

Hundreds of reporters from countries around the world have descended on the little university town of Boulder. Many have pushed and shoved and intruded on the Ramsey family and shocked Boulder residents with their aggressiveness. Particularly offensive have been reporters from sensational tabloids who are chasing a story replete with violence, sex, and intrigue - the stuff that these tabloids relish, and on which they prosper.

Some news organizations have paid for information - for purloined pictures of the crime scene and pictures of the murdered child as a contestant in juvenile beauty competitions. The New York Times reported that ABC and CBS competed in their bids for a video taken several years ago of the interior of the Ramsey home. Movies and books and TV docudramas are in the works.

The public has a right to know the facts about a murder, high-profile or not. The press has a right to report it and even to conduct its own investigation. But I think people are finding increasingly distasteful the kind of media circus that often surrounds dramatic news events.

The people of Boulder are. According to The New York Times, they brand TV crews jousting for information "vultures" and have launched a boycott of at least one tabloid paper whose coverage they think is excessively vulgar. One Boulder resident, former journalism professor Bill McReynolds, told the Times: "I am really appalled at what the press is doing." He said he was having second thoughts about the aggressiveness he had taught his former students to pursue.

Intrusive tactics

Reputable news organizations can be aggressive in pursuit of legitimate news without being rudely intrusive and tasteless. In the midst of tragedy, grieving families should be spared the army of photographers camped out on the front lawn and the reporters climbing trees to get a glimpse of family members through the bedroom windows.

From the Ramsey case there may be some lessons, too, for those who have spawned a new kind of subculture in our society - the child beauty contest. What has sparked much of the media interest in the murdered child is that she was a child "beauty queen." As one writer queried in bemusement: "How could a child who was barely in school, only three years or so out of diapers, possibly be characterized as a beauty queen?"

Questionable business

We should question this business of pushing little girls into beauty contests wearing heavy makeup and adult-style costumes. Some parents are careful to protect the innocence of their children at these events, but others might be offering targets for the child molesters and predators who sadly are too prevalent in society today. This is a possibility we cannot rule out in the case of JonBenet Ramsey.

Childhood is a precious time, and children should not be propelled prematurely into adulthood with all its challenges and demands. If the tragedy of JonBenet Ramsey results in a little more thought, a little more grace, a little more sensitivity, some small good may result from it.

* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.

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