#22 International Journalism Festival 2009

The Perugia case. How the media exploits crime stories

A diary on MySpace, YouTube and sprawling coverage on the morbidity of a crime in all leading Italian and international media: the Perugia case has kept the public in suspense. One of the opening panels of the 2009 Perugia International Journalism Festival gave an interesting impression on the public’s curiosity on present crimes.

By Carmen Paun and Maximilian Kall

British student Meredith Kerchner was stabbed to death in Perugia, the city she was studying at, on November 1st, 2007, the day after Halloween. In the 16 months that passed from her murder, the case has become a detective novel in the Italian and international press. Also because in the murder an American, an Italian and an Ivorian citizen seem to have been involved. The main suspects for Meredith’s death are her roommate, the American student Amanda Knoxx, and Amanda’s boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito. Rudy Hermann Guede, who had sex with the victim just before her death, required a fast trial and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

It is believed that Amanda stabbed her roommate who was held down by Raffaele and Rudy. Italian police representative said that Kercher’s throat was slit with a shard of glass or a pen-knife. The murder weapon hasn’t been found. The trial of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito began on 16 January 2009 and it is closely followed by the media all over the world.

“Crime news: Why all the attention” was thus a rather rhetorical question that headlined one of the panels of the opening day of the 2009 Perugia International Journalism Festival. Some of Italy’s most reknown crime reporters, lawyers and criminologists, among them Corriere della Sera-journalist Fiorenza Sarzanini, discussed about morbidity, senselessness of ‘modern’ crimes and excessive media reporting on the top pages of Italy’s media. By the way, not only the yellow press.

Amanda’s diary, her MySpace page and YouTube postings have been used by media to build hypothesis on her guiltiness. Books have already been published about the case. One of them was written by Corriere della Sera journalist Fiorenza Sarzanini. In “Amanda and the others” she has been on the path of Amanda’s life, using the girl’s diary and her confessions. The murder from Perugia is still one of the main cases vividly discussed by the Italian media. Since the murder, the authorities from Perugia have been trying to make the city more safe and to gain control over the sometimes crazy ways students from Perugia live their lives.
Criminologist Massimo Picozzi commented on the Perugia case that dominated Italian media: “People are interested in these morbid cases. Because of their special taste.” In the beginning of the 19th century detective stories started with Sherlock Holmes somehow investigating under his microscope the crimes of his time. And today? “Now it is CSI affecting the Italian society”, the criminologist said.

Reporting on such cases is all about selling a plot to a large audience in the most spectacular way. Fiorenza Sarzanini pointed, that without the plot of a detective story this does not work. The principle is rather simple: “You need a victim, a suspected person denying or confessing its guilt. This is it.” The details then, anatomized in any single vulgar characteristic, make the story a big story.

The Perugia case did not only find an Italian audience, it was reported worldwide. The Italian correspondent for the American TV network CBS, Sabina Castelfranco, described why. “The persons involved were foreigners, good looking, young. There was potentially a sexual relationship between two women. What else do you need for the story?”

The media’s sprawling coverage on crimes leads to one question: Where to draw the line between the journalistic obligation to inform the public about a committed crime and an irresponsible exploiting of a human fate.

“When there is a risk of overexposure of the victim, you reach the border”, Massimo Matinelli, journalist at the Italian daily Il Messagero commented. “We know how attractive crime news is. Public opinion is asking for crime news. Thus the role of journalists is essentilal. We cannot simply tell the story. We have to provide sound information, sometimes set things right.” How important this last point, the accuracy and correctnes of crime news is, criminologist Massimo Picorzzi pointed out: “It is often the jury in a trial that looks for information in media to have an impression of the public opinion. Mass media therefore has massive influence also on the jury’s decisions.”

Posted in | 02.04.2009

By: Carmen Paun, Maximilian Kall

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