A Rapid Journey from Victim to Vixen
Amy Wang is a deputy editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer's Sunday magazine.
WHEN A 26-YEAR-OLD JOGGER named Kimberly Ernest was found fatally beaten one morning in a stairwell in an upscale neighborhood of Center City Philadelphia, her slaying was instant headline news. Two young men were swiftly charged with beating, raping and strangling her. The police said she had tried to stop them from breaking into a car.###
Ernest became a local hero. As TV cameras rolled, the mayor spoke tearfully at her memorial service, and dozens of strangers left flowers, candles and notes where her body had been dumped on November 2, 1995.
Yet by the time the suspects were acquitted on March 14 of this year, Ernest's name had gone down in history less as a hero than as a gossip item. Amid reports of numerous affairs, some with married men, and intense media speculation over the source of the semen found in her rectum, Kimberly Ernest's story evolved from one of tragic victimization into a morality debate that stopped just short of implying that she had deserved her fate.
While some took the media to task for this--Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Claude Lewis, for one, wrote that Ernest's character had been "assassinated" and that the local media had sunk to the level of grocery store tabloids--those who directed the coverage say they were just reporting the facts and did so with as much sensitivity as possible given such an unsavory case.
The Ernest story had all the signs of a media ava-lanche from the start.
"It hit a number of nerves," says Brian Toolan, managing editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. "The public had an intense interest in the case, and it went beyond just spectator interest. This is a town with a crime problem; this was a crime that was in a place where you don't usually find it; this was a crime that had a racial aspect that the town was considering." When the suspects, Herbert Haak and Richard Wise, turned out to be white as well, "there was the sense that most of Philadelphia had a discernible collective sigh of relief," Toolan says.
As reporters settled in to cover the police investigation and the trial, other tantalizing issues came to light.
First, it turned out that the man who had helped finger Haak--Haak's stepfather--was a notorious jailhouse informer whose reliability was questionable, according to newspaper reports. Then the suspects recanted their confessions, claiming they had been coerced into admitting guilt. Because the interrogations had not been videotaped, it was the defendants' word against that of the city's police force, which had been tainted by corruption in the past.
Finally, there was the semen: An autopsy had found semen in Ernest's rectum, which was intact, but not in her vagina, which was torn. DNA testing had found that the semen didn't match either suspect, according to court testimony. The defense cited the incompatibility as proof of innocence. The prosecution attributed it to consensual sex with a third man.
Then the Daily News, quickly followed by the local Fox affiliate, WTXF-TV, broke a story that Ernest had kept a list of her sexual partners, introducing the idea that perhaps the real killer was a third man, an adulterer trying to protect himself. According to the Daily News, the prosecution immediately denied that any such list existed.
In voting for acquittal, jurors cited questionable confessions and the lack of physical evidence linking Haak and Wise to Ernest as the key factors. But for the media, it was the DNA/sex angle, bolstered by the supposed list, that dominated the Ernest story.
Defense lawyer Bernard Siegel says the media erred in their attempts to connect the dots of Ernest's story, creating an inaccurate image. "How a case of such sensitivity gets portrayed to the public, it will affect how the public looks at the result," Siegel says. "I'm a big fan of the media, but I've been in this business a long time and I've seen this happen before, where different members of the media forget that they're supposed to present an objective position."
The media would beg to differ.
Jeff Bartlett, news director at Philadelphia's CBS affiliate, KYW-TV, says that although the city's market is more accustomed to graphic crime coverage than some smaller markets, his station nevertheless made an effort to cover the Ernest case with particular sensitivity. "We tried to be careful with the sex," he says. "We let a lot more on the 11 [o'clock news] than we did on the 6."
Steve Doerr, news director and vice president at the local NBC affiliate, WCAU-TV, sounds a similar note: "You have to do a pretty good job of storytelling while at the same time being sensitive to your audience.... You try to say, 'Listen, we're talking about a trial. We're talking about a murder--feelings of safety that have been shaken'--and try to get away from a prurient viewpoint."
John Mussoni, news director of Philadelphia's Fox affiliate, admits that coverage of the Ernest case often led to second-guessing. "In the beginning we probably danced around [the sex angle] a lot more than we did in the end," he says. "I don't know whether we got more comfortable with the way we were reporting it, and it was kind of out there in everyday usage, or what."
The Daily News' Toolan agrees with Mussoni. "A strong argument could be made," he says, that the paper overdid the DNA/sex angle. But, he adds, "I think looking at that was demanded if we were going to have a fair sense of the case and how it was going to be prosecuted."
"We made sure our readers understood just what had happened and why her sex life was in the story," says Phil Dixon, assistant managing editor/ metro at the Philadelphia Inquirer. "But at the same time, we didn't want our readers to have to pick up the paper and hide it from the kids."
KYW's Bartlett seems to have resigned himself to the dilemmas and inevitable judgment lapses involved in covering unpalatable news. "I can see if I was a parent, I would be reluctant to let really young kids watch the news," he says. "The news isn't designed for young kids, it just isn't, and it's a struggle for us every day."