Overexposure: When media coverage blocks out the sun
WASHINGTON — As the cameras showed John Mark Karr sitting in an airport waiting to be moved, the media were already in full self-examination mode last week. Story after story wondered how the press got so far down the road of quietly – and sometimes not so quietly – pointing to the parents of JonBenet Ramsey as culprits in the 6-year-old's murder 10 years ago.
"I hope the media and authorities are looking long and hard at their own shameful behavior in this whole affair. Of course, I doubt that anyone is ... but it's very important for all of us to remember lessons learned here for future reference," Jake Tapper of ABC News wrote in his blog.
And in a matter of hours, it soon became clear that the future is, well, now.
It didn't take long before friends, relatives, and analysts pointed out that Mr. Karr's story – although he confessed to the killing – had multiple holes in it, leaving some to wonder whether the New York Daily News had maybe gone a tad too far when it led with the giant headline "SOLVED."
Is Karr guilty? Is Karr some oddball on the fringe? Do you care?
Be honest when you consider that last question.
It's easy to argue that the JonBenet Ramsey case doesn't matter much in the scheme of things. It ultimately is about whether the police in Boulder, Colo., can finally close the books on an old case.
But the fact is, the case has become more than that in the minds of many people. Yes, there are all the pieces that entice – the wealthy family, the beauty pageants, the strange mix of evidence surrounding the killing. It is above all, however, an unsolved mystery and when there was an arrest made, half the world away, you probably had the smallest bit of interest. If you didn't, you're a more high-minded person than I.
But the real issue is the amount of coverage lavished upon the story. In that sheer volume of stories, there's a lesson for consumers in how the media work – and it's not really about JonBenet.
The fact is, when the US news media really turn their attention to a topic, they do a very thorough job. You may not think much of the JonBenet story, but if you wanted to know about it, or even if you didn't, you certainly weren't lacking for information last week. There was everything from press conferences to Greta Van Susteren's interview/ deposition of Karr's brother Nate.
The problem is that when the media, particularly television news shows and especially the 24-hour cable networks, turn their focus on an issue, most everything else disappears. That means the issue is much larger than the JonBenet saga. Anything can be overdone, even serious topics such as the crisis – or crises – in the Middle East.
Consider the past few weeks. First it was Hizbullah and Israel getting wall-to-wall coverage, then it was liquids on a plane, then JonBenet. There's no question that some of those topics are more important than others, but is any so large that it should block out the sun?
Meanwhile, Iraq slowly becomes a daily casualty report, the fall elections become a discussion about "security moms," the economy boils down to the daily stock numbers, and Afghanistan essentially disappears from the news.
It is an enormously complicated world, and every day, all over, things happen that matter. It may sometimes seem that stories come from nowhere, like the terrorist attacks on 9/11. But it's often the case that these events are surprises only because we weren't paying attention, and we probably weren't paying attention because the media weren't paying attention.
There are reasons people buy books or pay to see movies. Plots are nice. Stories move from A to B to C and at the end, generally, everything is tied together nicely. But the news isn't a movie or a book. Stories rise and fall and rise again, and they usually don't do it in a linear, neat way.
Sometime in the next few days there will probably be DNA evidence in the JonBenet case that explicitly links Karr to the killing or doesn't. Then, or sometime shortly after, the avalanche of coverage will cease, and the story will probably fall into the background again.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that the US news media abhor a vacuum. Something else will surely dominate the coverage. The best strategy for consumers may be to look deeper in the newspaper, the website, and the newscast and hope there's some room for the rest of the world.
• Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, writes a twice-monthly column on media issues. E-mail him at: Dante Chinni.