A nation focused on one child's death JonBenet Ramsey attracted attention because she was pretty, affluent and white

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In 1995, 763 children under age 9 were murdered in the United States, according to the most recent FBI statistics available. This means that, on average, two children in this age bracket are murdered every day.

Yet most of us know little, if anything, about these children or the circumstances of their deaths. Local newspapers and television news may cover individual incidents, but rarely are these stories picked up by national media.

Recent coverage of the murder of JonBenet Ramsey is a clear exception - national news media have flocked to this story. People and Newsweek have run cover articles on the murder. All of the networks have covered the murder both on their evening newscasts and elsewhere. A sampling of coverage includes ""Larry King Live," ""Dateline" and ""Hard Copy."

And The New York Times reports that journalists from as far away as Australia have descended upon Boulder, Colo., while CBS has paid $4,000 for a 1994 video of the interior of the Ramsey home.

The media have vigorously pursued such angles as the grief of JonBenet's classmates, the crime scene photos, the ransom note, the family's public relations response, beauty pageants and even media coverage itself.

There is no doubt of the magnitude of the tragedy here. Does it, though, warrant so much more attention than all the other child murders?

I asked my students the other day why this was such a big story. They gave a variety of reasons, all legitimate and all consistent with the way we tend to define news: JonBenet was a beautiful little girl; she was found dead the day after Christmas, which somehow made the murder all the more horrific; she had been sexually assaulted; the murder took place in a relatively peaceful and affluent community.

Other students in my class gave somewhat more cynical responses: Viewers enjoyed the ""whodunit"; Lolita-like photos and video of JonBenet and the circumstances of her death titillated the baser elements among us.

But are even these reasons enough to account for the array of coverage with which we have been confronted? Isn't the murder of any child horrific? The Chicago Tribune recognized this in 1993, when it ran its ""Killing Our Children" series. The paper's front page covered every child slain in Chicago and its suburbs. But the Tribune's coverage was and is not the norm. Nor did its stories lead to the media frenzy we witness here.

The JonBenet Ramsey story brings together a confluence of race, gender and class that, when coupled with the media's tendency toward pack journalism, makes this story irresistible for mass market press.

Her death should not be more newsworthy than that of another child because she was a white little girl with well-to-do parents. But it has been.

Certainly the underlying sexuality - having little girls dress up like women, complete with make-up - is part of this story. Photos and videos of JonBenet fit neatly with the stereotypical way we define beauty in this country: blond and blue-eyed.

But there's something more here. These images are consistent with the way we as a society, including the media, objectify women every day. The images of JonBenet crossing our television screens make us see her as a ""beauty queen," not as the little girl she was. The media's focus, and therefore our own, has been on her looks: little girl as woman. Sexual woman. And sex sells.

These images are disturbingly similar to those found in nearly any women's magazine or on prime-time television, let alone publications that more clearly set out to exploit women. But certainly the media should draw the line at little girls.

Yet, while JonBenet's gender is part of the story, it is not the entire story. Race and class play a part here as well.

The media tend toward stories of the middle and upper classes. As contemporary journalists tend to be from the middle class, so, too, are their sensibilities and sensitivities - and this tendency is reflected in their news stories.

My students were right: The fact that this murder happened in Boulder rather than someplace like Detroit mattered. When the lifestyle or values of white suburbia are threatened, the media pay heed: It's no longer happening to ""them," but to ""us."

And, so, in this sense, race also is part of what makes this story.

In a media environment comprising large corporations with the emphasis on the bottom line, it is no surprise that this story has flourished. We are witnessing a new and disturbing form of pack journalism, where mainstream and tabloid media compete to exploit the tragedy of others for financial gain. Buying into traditional stereotypes, regardless of how sexist or racist they may be, is part of the deal.

Carol M. Liebler is associate professor of communications in Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications. She researches and writes about diversity in news media.

Pub Date: 1/26/97

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