On 1st November 2007, British exchange student Meredith Kercher was murdered in her shared apartment in Perugia, Italy. The case received worldwide press coverage, particularly in England and Italy, and has been of high media interest on an international magnitude for over four years. However, since the release of suspect Amanda Knox on 3rd October 2011 the media’s shift in the spotlight has left Kercher’s family to believe that, ‘Meredith has been hugely forgotten’ (Kington 2011). So why did this change of focus from the media happen? And how and when did it first come into place?
Meredith Kercher, 21, moved to Perugia in 2007 to undergo a year exchange program for her final year of studies at Leeds University. On the night after Halloween in 2007, Kercher was found raped and with her throat slit in the house she shared with American student Amanda Knox, then aged 20, and two Italian women. Five days later, Knox and her Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were arrested, along with a third man, Ivory Coast migrant Rudy Guede, a few weeks later. Knox and Sollecito were eventually sentenced to Kercher’s murder on 5th December 2008 for 26 and 25 years, respectively, but were freed from their conviction three years later due to a lack of physical evidence linking them to the murder. Guede, who was given a 30 year sentence, remains convicted.
When the story of Kercher’s murder first broke, a large influence was on the way Knox acted, notably before she was arrested, whilst she was being questioned and whilst she was in prison giving evidence. In the early stages of reporting, there was one image, a still from an Italian television program (Joyce 2011), that was largely used by the media, which was of Knox and Sollecito kissing outside of the house where Kercher’s body still lay. Head of Perugia’s murder squad, Monica Napoleoni, told reporters that, ‘Knox and Sollecito would make faces, kiss each other, while there was the body of a friend in those conditions’ (Leslie 2011). This is when the Italian police first started to suspect that Knox was involved in the murder, with family and friends of Kercher commenting that her behaviour was ‘emotionless’, ‘strange’ and ‘upsetting’ (Hale 2009).
This is when a pattern began to emerge in the reporting of Kercher’s murder, as the change of focus onto ‘Foxy Knoxy’ first started to come into play. Stories around the case started focusing more and more on Knox’s personality and behaviour, heavily emphasising her ‘wild, raunchy past’ (Malone 2007). The media, especially in the Italian newspapers, proclaimed it was, ‘The Amanda Show’ (Dempsey 2011: 256), a term that was generated when the pre-trail hearings began in Perugia on 19th September 2008. Reporting then started to become more sensationalised through tabloid newspapers around the world using offences such as ‘diabolical, sex-obsessed she-devil’ (Collins 2011) in their headlines, and as Julian Joyce commented on BBC News, ‘A picture began to be painted of a “party girl” who abused drink and drugs and had an active sex life’ (Joyce 2011).
This representation of Knox is exactly why her character started to receive the attention of the press. In an article for the LA Times, Nina Burleigh (2011a) commented that:
‘After a few weeks in Perugia, I saw that there was something very wrong with the narrative of the murder that the authorities and the media were presenting. There was almost no material evidence linking Knox or her boyfriend to the murder… It became clear that it wasn’t facts but Knox — her femaleness, her Americaness, her beauty — that was driving the case.’
Furthermore, Nick Squires reported that Claudio Pratillo Hellmann, the Italian judge who overturned Knox’s conviction, commented that, ‘Amanda Knox was unfairly demonised for her behaviour following Meredith Kercher’s murder, which included doing cartwheels in a police station and buying racy underwear’ (Squires 2011b). The focus on these slight acts of normality encouraged many to believe that Knox had no emotional reaction towards the death of her friend, which is why a lot of reporting turned to focus on her other behaviour as well. The insinuation began that if a girl enjoys casual sex whilst smoking marijuana, surely she has it in her to commit a murder as well.
Sollecito’s defence lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno, highlighted the feeling of many of those close to Knox by commenting that she too felt that Amanda had been unfairly represented in the media, whilst Bongiorno believed that, ‘In fact she was a normal young woman who was in love with her Italian boyfriend’ (Squires 2011a). But the reporting became a form of entertainment, focusing away from the murder she supposedly committed to focusing on events such as going out to buy lingerie in between questioning. As Carole Cadwalladr comments, ‘Details of Knox’s life were dissected with a mixture of titillation and prurience’ (Cadwalladr 2011). Mark Lawson even compared it to the courtroom broadcasts of OJ Simpson’s murder trial in 1995 as it ‘had the elements that trial TV most enjoys – youth, sex and wealth’ (Lawson 2011).
What’s more, if the media weren’t reporting about new information or the revelation of some other scorned detail, they were commenting on other mediums that were. Roy Greenslade (2011) commented on The Guardian that, ‘She [Knox] has been both demonised and celebrified in the coverage that followed her arrest and conviction for the murder of Meredith Kercher, and that, ‘Whether the stories and comments were positive or negative, they helped to make her famous.’ Nina Burleigh (2011b) went on to describe her as ‘the “star” of the horrid murder theory’, but whilst it’s easy to say that reporting on Kercher’s murder did have a large focus on Knox, it’s not as straightforward to see when or why this change in media focus came into place.
To do this, I have undergone a content analysis to see how the case was reported in more substantial detail on five news websites – BBC News, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, Reuters UK edition and the Italian publication La Repubblica. I chose these websites to obtain a variety of reporting in the UK, with the BBC News and The Guardian appealing to a large but differential audience, The Daily Mail to give a tabloid example, Reuters’ international reporting to give a wider coverage of the case, and La Repubblica to see how the case was reported in the country the crime was committed as well.
On each of these websites, I went to the main news page and searched ‘Meredith Kercher’ in the search box. I made sure that the reporting began on the day of the murder, 1st November 2007, and ran up until the day I was doing this content analysis, 15th December 2011. First, I counted the number of reports on each website, excluding profile pages, weekly summaries, timelines and any other posts that were not relevant to the reporting of the case, and then I counted the number of posts that included Amanda Knox’s name in the headline alone, which I believed was the best way to tell if a story had more of a focus on her than Kercher. Turning this figure into a percentage, I also made notes of when Knox’s name first appeared in the reports so I could get the most out of how these news websites differentiated in their reporting. Here are my results:
My results show that, on average, the papers focused on Knox (by using her name in the headline) 47% of the time. However, these results do not convey when she first started getting more media attention, so I went on to form some additional evidence:
Unfortunately, these results didn’t show any consistency either, and it’s still hard to determine the ‘when’ part of my essay question. To better demonstrate this, I then made the graph below to show the percentage of stories during each month of the trail that included Knox’s in the headline, using the same methods as before with the BBC News as my source:
This graph successfully shows that, towards the end of the reporting, nearly all of the stories were focused on Knox. In the first few months of reporting, Knox was included in 0% of the headlines and by the end of reporting it was always between 60%-100%. So, it seems, Knox did become the focus of the stories reported on Kercher’s death. Whilst we have discussed reasons as to why Knox received a lot of the media focus at the start of reporting, it’s still hard to determine why there was this increase in focus at the end of her sentence. Furthermore, did this focus relate to her subsequent release?
Aside from a public intrigue into the character of Knox, the primary reason for the interest in her character, the second influence was the PR campaign set up by Knox’s family to help clear their daughter’s name. The media had had their fun, but Knox’s family wanted to redress the imbalance of reporting, as they maintained that Knox was unfairly portrayed as manipulative and sex-obsessed on the basis of her good looks and eccentric behaviour throughout her time in jail.
The family hired a PR company as soon as she was arrested in 2007, as friends and supporters of Knox began to set up their own websites to protest her innocence. Knox’s father told The Seattle Times that, ‘We will take this as far as we have to take this because she’s walking out of there totally free of anything related to this’ (Joyce 2011). But whilst this campaign could have easily played a part in Knox’s release, it is also the reason why Kercher’s family began to fear for their daughter’s memory, as a lawyer for the Kerchers told Reuters that, ‘Kercher has been forgotten in the “fog” of a tireless media and public relations campaign to free the American student convicted of killing her’ (Babington 2011).
[UPDATE: Since writing this essay I have had a lot of feedback from American residents, most of who have a great understanding of the case – see comments below – and I have been informed that the family’s PR campaign is very different and separate to the grassroots efforts of the individuals who set up websites and blogs and their own campaigns to free Amanda and bring the case’s deficiencies into the public attention, and this needs to be taken into consideration.]
Hours before Knox was freed in 2011, Kercher’s family, who had kept a predominantly low profile throughout the case, held a press conference out of their concern that all of the focus on Knox had overshadowed Kercher’s death, and that the ‘media hype was in danger of overwhelming the facts in the case’ (Kofman 2011). Kercher’s brother, Lyle, said that the family didn’t want to speak publicly at this point, but that they felt compelled to do so because of Knox’s ‘PR machine’ (Kofman 2011). They wanted to put out the message that the real victim needs remembering, as they managed to ‘temporarily outshine “The Amanda Show”’ (Dempsey 2011: 257).
Back in 2009, Barbara Ellen was already asking, ‘Now that American Amanda “Foxy Knoxy” Knox has been found guilty of murder and sentenced to 26 years, will we finally drag our attention over to Meredith Kercher?’ (Ellen 2009). But it never did. On the other hand, Daniel Sandford commented on the BBC News that, ‘Meredith Kercher, the British student who was murdered, is at the heart of the proceedings. But her vivacious personality and the need to be certain who ended her life are sometimes drowned out by the clamour to free Amanda Knox’ (Sandford 2011).
Overall, my research methods, there were are few problems as it’s impossible to know where the websites included all of the relevant reporting on the case or not, so I could only work with what was available. Generally, though, I think my study was a fair analysis that gave a wide variety of examples of reporting. The graph that I created, as well, really demonstrated what I wanted to express through my research, which in the end efficiently supported my results.
In relation to my findings, there were two reasons as to why Amanda Knox took dominance in the case of Meredith Kercher’s murder. The first was the media’s interest in her character and personality and, secondly, there was the use of the family’s PR campaign used by the Knox family to free their daughter. As Ellen (2009) continues, ‘There seems to be a market out there, a hunger, for this kind of thing. A predilection, as someone said to me, for favouring Bonnie over Clyde.’ But this focus on the suspect rather than the victim isn’t out of favouritism; the genuine reason is because it’s hard to relate to the victim of a murder case when their situation will ultimately remain the same. New evidence and information is always being released about the suspects, which is why Knox at the end of the reporting was the main focus. Knox was giving evidence, Knox was being prosecutes, and it was Knox that was in the end proven innocence. It was only too obvious that the shift in media focus would turn to the suspect as it had no other way to go. But that’s not to say that the real victim has been forgotten either.
Candace Dempsey, 2010. Murder in Italy. 1st Edition. Berkley.