Why cable news pursues the JonBenet Ramsey case

While broadcast networks offer traditional journalistic fare, their cable rivals are now more like the Daily News than The New York Times.

"SOLVED!'' read the Daily News headline. "BREAKING NEWS" flashed the MSNBC graphic: "JonBenet Ramsey Case Solved?"

Almost a decade after a flood of media speculation about the unsolved murder of the child beauty queen essentially convicted her parents in the court of public opinion, critics say they were at it again last week.

This time the new suspect was John Mark Karr, an Alabama man arrested in Thailand on child pornography charges, who had allegedly confessed to the 1996 killing.

But media critics note that within a day or so of the initial rush to judgment, a more skeptical tone took hold. News organizations that 24 hours before had only footnoted inconsistencies in Mr. Karr's account suddenly were scrutinizing them.

The trajectory of the JonBenet story highlights a new stratification of television news. The major broadcast networks that once set the nation's news agenda have settled into a less powerful evening niche offering more traditional journalistic fare while their cable rivals have matured into a kind of 24-hour tabloid broadcast, more like the Daily News than The New York Times. As such, they're more likely to focus on the sensational to keep their ratings up.

"The funny thing is that you can help your ratings and erode your reputation," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project on Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) in Washington. "The [broadcast] networks came to understand that, but the cable networks just can't seem to resist."

Tabloid sensationalism has been part of American media since the mid-1800s, and its formula hasn't changed: It involves a crime, the downfall of the innocent, and some kind of social deviance. But its dominance of the news agenda has come in waves. The "yellow journalism" of the 1880s cultivated by William Randolph Hearst's and Joseph Pulitzer's papers eventually died out, in part because the staid, uptown The New York Times proved to be a more lucrative economic model, says Mr. Rosenstiel.

The latest outbreak started during the O.J. Simpson case in 1994 and 1995 where the major media and the tabloids obsessed over the celebrity murder trial. In 1996, the Ramsey murder case marked the first time a local story that didn't involve a celebrity or a truly bizarre crime became a staple of the cable channels. While 9/11 "somewhat put an end to the OJ-ification of network news," Rosenstiel says, cable networks still thrive on local crimes like the Ramsey case, the Laci Peterson murder trial in 2004 and the Natalee Holloway disappearance last year.

"After 20 years, we have to conclude that cable is more of a tabloid broadcast," he says. That's because it has to attract people's attention by the moment. Since it's not "an appointment medium" like an evening newscast, cable values stories such as the JonBenet case, which can spike ratings.

"[Ratings] will fall off, but you'll still have a story that's big enough to move the needle and attract people who like this kind of stuff," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center for the People and the Press in Washington. "That's what keeps cable news in business at times when there's not real breaking news."

In its 2006 survey on the state of the media, PEJ found that cable "is thinly reported, suffers from a focus on the immediate, especially during the day, is prone to opinion mongering and is easily controlled by sources who want to filibuster." The findings could put cable at risk of losing viewers to the Internet and other news outlets, PEJ concluded.

That now seems to be happening. A Pew Research Center study found that the number of people who say they regularly watch cable news has dropped from 38 percent in 2004 to 34 percent today.

Some point to cable's tabloid nature and a constant focus on stories like the Ramsey case.

"It clearly is a lead story," says Bob Steele, senior ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "But it still requires us to be sure that the words we use in a headline, that the language we use to describe what's taking place, are measured and thoughtful.

That's a sentiment that John Ramsey, JonBenet's father, emphasized when the Karr development broke, urging the media not to repeat its mistakes and convict the man before he's even charged.

"The problem is that one can never get one's reputation back," says Clay Calvert, a professor of communications and law at Penn State University and coauthor of "Press Coverage of The JonBenet Ramsey Murder and Its Legal Implications." "No amount of coverage could ever make up for the harms that were done to the Ramsey family."

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