We just had another media explosion in my neck of the woods. A relapse of JonBenet Fever was triggered by a pathetic pedophile who said he murdered the 6-year-old beauty queen 10 years ago.
It seems that he really thought he did, but alarms should have been raised from the beginning. The news media heard those alarms, and even reported on them, but the faint blush of skepticism didn’t stop a frenzy of coverage.
This raises many ethical questions. Two of them stand out:
How, as a news medium, do you keep from going overboard when all around you are losing their heads?
If you’re a journalism professor, is it like being a full-time journalist and thus unethical to cooperate with officialdom, even to identify a possible murderer?
Reasonable people will have different answers to these questions, and it’s difficult to analyze them simultaneously. But let’s try.
WHAT: John Mark Karr, 41, was arrested in mid-August in Bangkok, Thailand, at the request of Colorado and U.S. officials. During questioning, he confessed to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, who had been beaten and strangled in the basement of her Boulder, Colo., home sometime during Christmas night 1996. (The murder was a media obsession for much of 1997, and video clips of the young beauty contestant competing in various costumes ran, it seems, every few hours.)
Karr was arrested after Michael Tracey, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado, alerted authorities to information he had drawn from e-mails Karr had sent him over the past four years. Karr had initiated the correspondence, apparently intrigued by Tracey’s argument, in documentaries and elsewhere, that John and Patsy Ramsey had been unfairly implicated in their daughter’s death. Karr was returned to Boulder for DNA testing and ultimately cleared. But he wasn’t freed; he also faced misdemeanor child pornography charges in California.
WHO: Put yourself in the shoes of a news director or managing editor. Could you resist this story, especially if you were in Colorado? In the first three weeks after Karr’s “confession,” the Rocky Mountain News ran 150 stories about him, including this first-day lead: “The decadelong search for JonBenet Ramsey’s killer came to a startling end in Thailand on Wednesday.” The Denver Post probably ran a similar number, but its Web site list cuts off after 10 hits. In JonBenet’s home town of Boulder, the Daily Camera ran 120 stories during the same period.
Or imagine you’re Professor Tracey. Do you break a confidence with your source if you think it can solve a murder — or protect children half a world away?
There are many stakeholders in this case, including the media, Tracey and, of course, Karr himself. Add Boulder law enforcement authorities, who had been criticized for bungling the original case 10 years ago, and now for spending $23,656, including two business-class airfares, to bring a delusional man back to face dubious charges. Ramsey family members are major stakeholders. Even the University of Colorado J-school is among many parties with a peripheral interest.
WHY: The principles involved in deciding what to do include the media’s obligations to their readers and viewers to present the news in full while maintaining a sense of responsibility and balance. For Professor Tracey, there’s a struggle between confidentiality and collaboration. And should the media be critical of authorities who, after all, pulled Karr away from the temptation of children in Thailand, where he was about to begin a teaching job?
HOW: We’ve seen how the media reacted to this story — at full throttle. Was it overkill? In my opinion, yes. I would rather have seen more skepticism and proportionality. Was Professor Tracey’s role appropriate? He considers himself an academic, not a journalist. But even if he were a journalist, wrote Rocky Mountain News media columnist David Kopel, he should act like an ethical human being. Kopel’s argument is worth repeating.
“Some critics claim that if journalists cooperate with the police, they will lose the trust of their audience. But just imagine how much less most readers would trust the newspapers if readers learned that a reporter refused to reveal nonconfidential information which could have led to the capture of a notorious murderer.”
Fred Brown, an SPJ past president, is co-chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a newspaper columnist and television analyst in Denver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org