Changing Hawaii

By Diane Yukihiro Chang

Friday, August 29, 1997

Does public want
to know gory details?

THE Aug. 25 issue of Time magazine contains the purported last moments of JonBenet Ramsey. The mainstream publication thus joins the supermarket tabloids in releasing the grisly autopsy report on the murdered youngster from Boulder, Colo.

Watching this bizarre eight-month mainland investigation is like following the O.J. Simpson case or monitoring the Hawaii state Legislature when it's in session: You don't want to be interested, but you just can't help yourself.

Mayhem and gore, even of the political variety, can be strangely mesmerizing.

The Time article, written by Paul Gray, seems apologetic at its outset. Of the autopsy report on the little girl, whose killer has yet to be arrested, the author describes its findings as "heartbreaking." Then, however, he proceeds to share the gruesome facts: how badly the child had been garroted, how her hair was styled and what she wore, and even what the stains on her panties say about her death.

Does anyone really need to know this? Are people such voyeurs about a fellow human's pain and anguish?

Oh no, I'm beginning to sound just like my friend, Nanci. Her biggest gripe about the media is that, in our coverage of catastrophes, we go out of our way to renew the grief of crime victims and their loved ones.

The major culprit is the broadcast journalist who descends on the scene of a tragedy (for instance, a fatal car accident), thrusts a mike into the faces of family members still in shock and queries, "So, how do you feel right now?"

How do you think?

Every once in awhile print reporters go overboard too, according to Nanci. As proof, she sent me a recent Garden Island newspaper clipping about the Kauai murder of Kimberly Cohen.

On July 11, Cohen allegedly was beaten for two hours, thrown into a car trunk, suffocated and buried in a shallow grave by two people -- her cousin, Monica Alves, and Alves' husband, Mitchell Peralto. The two are awaiting trial.

In an article headlined, "Witnesses did nothing to help her," Garden Island staff writer Georgia Mossman did a thorough job of relating a literal blow-by-blow account of the vicious pummeling of Cohen in front of her roommates, including young children.

Nanci mailed me a copy with a little yellow Post-It note that read, "This article is precisely what I mean when I say the press needs to be more sensitive to victims' and families' feelings, emotions. Every gross, raw detail was mentioned. Why?"

Because in journalism classes, aggressive reporting is a virtue.

Because who are we to act as censors in deciding what is or what is not in "bad taste" about newsworthy events?

But mostly, because that is what many journalists think readers and viewers want.

WHETHER they really do, we may never know. If a call-in or write-in poll asked, "Do you, as a consumer of news, want graphic details about true-to-life violence and crime?," most respondents would answer negatively.

Nobody likes to admit being titillated by such minutia. But there's a strong likelihood that they are. Broadcast and print media that specialize in it are thriving.

Unfortunately, journalists have a responsibility to report on all concerns of a community -- especially on possible threats -- even if its members don't want to know about it.

Sorry, Nanci. Sorry, JonBenet.

Diane Yukihiro Chang's column runs Monday and Friday.
She can be reached by phone at 525-8607, via e-mail at, or by fax at 523-7863.

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