What can media coverage of JonBenet Ramsey tell us about that of Madeleine McCann?
Following a comment left by Vincent Campbell on the Media Standards Trust debate, I spent some time looking at how the US media covered the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. Ramsey was 6 years old when she was found murdered in the basement of her home in 1996. She had been reported missing about 8 hours earlier when her parents found a ransom note on the stairs.
Like the McCanns, JonBenet’s parents were well off and well spoken. Like the McCanns they tried to use the media to help them work out what happened to their daughter. And like in the McCann case the key seemed to lie with DNA evidence – which could never be properly validated.
But unlike the McCanns the media quickly lost sympathy with the Ramseys, some outlets making the parents prime suspects from early on (panellists were discussing the mother’s possible guilt on the Geraldo Rivera show within 4 months). By contrast the majority of the UK press is still behind the McCanns – most notably the Mirror, although the Mail has been desperately trying to twist itself into a position where it can both sympathise and demonise (via pieces like David Jones’ article last Saturday – the worst kind of retrospective memory; ‘I have a terrible nagging doubt’ Jones wrote, ‘the McCanns might be involved…’).
The Ramsey case also ran and ran. Coming not long after the OJ Simpson trial, which dominated news coverage in 1994-95, JonBenet’s murder became a huge media spectacle. So big that memories of it were still quite fresh when, in 2006, John Mark Karr falsely confessed to murdering the child.
Various commentators suggested that the two cases together – OJ Simpson and Ramsey – altered the agendas and approach of mainstream news, one journalist writing that they “helped redefine mainstream journalism as a form of soap operatic storytelling”.
This fails to take into account the long history of dramatic personal stories, particularly in the tabloids. But it is true that for a story to so dominate all news media, for such a length of time, is rare. In the end the obsessive media coverage hurt the Ramseys beyond repair (JonBenet’s mother died of cancer in 2006). At the current rate it shows similar signs of doing terrible damage to the McCanns.
Though their case may not last a decade, if the Madeleine McCann coverage is anything like that of JonBenet Ramsey, we should expect the McCann’s to still be on front pages come summer 2008.