Even as a little girl, I came to know the name. Standing in the grocery store checkout with my mom, JonBenet Ramsey's face was plastered across the tabloids weekly. This plastic and pretend-looking child smiled down at me from behind terrifying headlines, printed in grisly and bloody bold fonts.
Her story confused and horrified me when I was a seven-year-old in line at Vons, clinging to my mother's hand. Almost two decades later, I can report that the newest slew of headlines regarding this sad girl's story leave me with those same two emotions -- but for entirely different reasons.
I am confused about why Jon Benet Ramsey is still making headlines... and I am horrified that she is.
JonBenet Ramsey's death was tragic and the circumstances around it remain ominous, but it is a cold case from 17 years ago. The continued interest in every detail of her murder would seem to imply that the past 17 years haven't seen any other murders of innocent children, that her case continues to grip public interest by being a novelty.
But murdered and missing children are, unfortunately, not a novelty in this county.
In fact, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, roughly 800,000 children are reported missing each year.
In the past decade, UNICEF estimates that over 20,000 children have been murdered in their homes by a family member.
So while I believe any death is a tragedy, I don't care about JonBenet Ramsey.
I realize this is a contentious thing to say. Some might even deem it sociopathic. So before I go on, I want to clarify. As a writer, I pride myself on being careful with my words and 'care,' in my opinion, is one of the most powerful words in the English language.
Caring is an active state -- it's something that you do, not something that you simply feel. Unfortunately, we've rendered this important word impotent with misuse.
With that pretext in mind -- not only do I not care about JonBenet Ramsey, I don't believe that you care about JonBenet Ramsey either.
For that matter, I don't believe that you cared about Caylee Anthony. I don't believe that the trial-watchers or bloggers who recounted every detail really cared about the plight of missing, abused or murdered children. If they did, why weren't they lobbying the media to cover open cases of missing children? Why weren't they demanding that missing children of color got an equal chance at international attention? Why were they clinging to one dead girl who could not be saved instead of volunteering or raising awareness about others who could be?
We say we 'care' because we think we should, because we believe it makes us good people and because it gives us an excuse for things like our morbid and inappropriate national obsession with one child. If we admitted that we didn't care -- or that we didn't care enough to act around the issues rooted in these sad stories then we'd have to contend with an unsavory reality: we choose our news based on its entertainment value, not on its inherent value. And this goes far beyond murdered and missing children.
What's wrong with this, you might ask? What's dangerous? What's so problematic?
When we fail to ask ourselves why we obsess over a handful of high-profile stories, we accept the news that we believe we deserve and we are less-informed, less educated and less aware of the world around us because of it.
The newest headlines on JonBenet Ramsey are detrimental because they take the place of more valuable news stories.
Brooke Gladstone addressed this in a PBS interview about media during the O.J. Simpson trial. "You don't give people a reason to change the channel because you don't change the subject." She said. "And if they're interested, they'll hang in there for the next bit of speculation, however ill-informed it may be. If it doesn't really matter how important a story is, only that it has certain elements of human drama and that's enough to keep it dominating the news channels and crowding out legitimate news, then you have a situation that's sad, because it makes the public less informed."
Overlapping for nine months with the Simpson trial, there was an important news event that went largely unreported in U.S. coverage. It didn't go unreported and under-reported due to lack of information or relevance, it went unreported and under-reported because the media was saturated with Simpson coverage and could not or would not divert its attention. That important news event was the Rwandan genocide, and while the public was gripped by one tragic murder involving one famous man, over 1 million men, women and children were slaughtered.
If the OJ Simpson trial had not monopolized media resources and if airtime had been judiciously distributed among newsworthy events, would the public have been activated in response to coverage of Rwanda? Would the public have held leaders accountable and demanded action? These questions are futile and unproductive in hindsight. We have no way of knowing and we never will.
But today I'm forced to wonder which stories will go unreported. Which stories will be dismissed as less entertaining, less gripping -- because we all claim to care about one child pageant star who cannot possibly be saved or resurrected by our false sympathies.
So today I don't care about JonBenet Ramsey. I care about the still missing children of color who never got national coverage. I care about child abuse, neglect and violence against women. I care about the refugee crisis in Syria. I care about Mukesh Kapila, who spoke in front of the UN yesterday and said that the "Darfur genocide was avoidable if there was an international political will."
In other words, I care about the news and I'm gravely concerned about a mainstream news media that looks more and more like the tabloids of my childhood grocery line. I'm terrified about the amount of important stories I don't see or hear. But I CARE. So I'm willing to do something about it. The real question is: are you?