It seemed a perfect story. A 10-year-old murder case, a child victim, a dramatic confession in a faraway land and a supposed villain who looked every inch the creepy paedophile. No wonder the faces of John Mark Karr and JonBenet Ramsey were soon staring out of newspapers, magazines and TV screens across the country.
The bloodshed in Iraq and the Middle East was bumped off the agenda as the US media produced saturation coverage of Karr’s confession to killing JonBenet, solving one of America’s most notorious crimes. But there was problem: it was not true.
Karr’s exposure as a sick fantasist has prompted a bout of self-recrimination and criticism of American journalism at a time when the profession’s stock is already at a pitiful low.
For the Karr disaster is far from an isolated case. The New York Times is also coming under increasing fire for its coverage of an alleged rape involving students at the prestigious Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
‘The Karr and the Duke cases show a rush to judgment that has proven potentially disastrous,’ says Mark Feldstein, a former CNN journalist and now director of journalism at George Washington University in Washington DC.
These stories also come after last year’s obsessive coverage of teenager Natalee Holloway, who vanished on the Caribbean island of Aruba. Several suspects and an island’s way of life were raked over the media coals, but the police have yet to charge anyone with murder.