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4 October 2011

The Amanda Knox case is another blow to the press

In the rush to be first, sometimes something - anything - will do.

By Steven Baxter

News that Amanda Knox had been found guilty sent publishers into a spin. Nowadays we all want to be FIRST!!!!!, the irritating commenter who leaves their response first under a story, and first is everything, whether it’s completely right or not. It was only a few minutes later, when those who had been patient enough to listen to the Italian translation of the whole verdict, realised that Knox was only guilty of libel, and not of the murder of Meredith Kercher.

It’s embarrassing for the Mail Online, and others, who in their rush to publish, got it so badly wrong. It’s understandable that a paper would have two versions of a story ready to go; and that legal teams and all other parties would provide quotes to the media based on both eventualities ahead of any decision. What isn’t understandable is the making up of details: “She sank into her chair sobbing uncontrollably”, according to the Mail, but that never happened, because she wasn’t found guilty.

In the rush to be first, sometimes something – anything – will do, and quality can suffer as a result. This sort of thing has always happened in newspapers since the presses began to roll – remember the photo of a grinning Harry Truman holding up a front page saying he had been defeated in the presidential election – and many are the times when papers will have a couple of versions of a story ready to go when they know what the outcome is.

Sometimes, mistakes are made, and that’s the product of simple errors and incompetence rather than malice. All that said, the guessing of details about what might have happened really isn’t good enough. If you don’t know, don’t say anything; don’t guess at what might have happened and then get it tidied up once you’ve had half a million unique users piling in to the story. That sort of thing isn’t going to restore trust in journalism after the recent scandals, regardless of whether it’s an honest mistake rather than a malicious one. The overly rapid handling of the Knox case is another dent in the credibility of our press and their ability to be trusted.

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I mention Knox rather than Raffaele Sollecito because the popular narrative with this story has never been about him. This has been, for better or worse, the tale of a not unattractive white American woman embroiled in a murder which may have had sexual elements to it; who even remembers what Sollecito looks like? Or that Rudy Guede is in prison, serving time for the crime? It has always been the story of Knox, or ‘Foxy Knoxy’ as the tabloids have lasciviously called her, based on a moniker she once gave herself online.

No wonder Kercher’s family feel she has been forgotten in all the attention directed at Knox, and to a much lesser extent, Sollecito and Guede. Knox’s face stares out from all the newspapers, on one occasion photographed so that her face was framed with a light above it as a halo, while the victim fades away into the background.

Who remembers Kercher’s agony and her family’s pain of loss? But that is the way of these things. The very least the tabloids so joyously feasting on the gory details could do would be to be as accurate as possible, if they aren’t going to be respectful. But they can’t even do that.