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Crime sells

Posted by: | September 16, 2009 | No Comment |
Before OJ, before cable news, before the advent of tabloids and even before the Lindbergh kidnapping, there was the murder of Helen Jewett in 1836. Jewett was an upscale prostitute in New York City until her brutal murder in the early hours of April 10.
The next day, New York’s best-selling Sun newspaper published the first account of the crime, including all of the grisly details. The only problem with the story was that it was simply a regurgitation of what the police and coroner said in a public hearing.

The Herald, rival to the Sun, aggressively pursued the story thanks to the hard work of James Gordon Bennett Sr. Bennett started the newspaper only a year prior to Jewett’s murder and he already had a potential blockbuster story to work with.

He delivered the goods by doing his own investigation of the crime. Over the course of a week, he visited the house where Jewett was murdered. His series of stories, “VISIT TO THE SCENE,” published April 12, 13 and 16, put the newspaper on the front foot compared to its rival. The man originally charged with the crime, Richard P. Robinson, was acquitted thanks in part to Bennett’s investigative reporting.

The Herald trumpeted a “rapid increase” in circulation and all the Sun could do was merely report the reaction to what their rivals were reporting. This was a watershed event not only for Bennett and the Herald but for journalism as a whole. Journalists are now expected to get on the front foot in reporting criminal cases.

* Apologies for not separating the first three paragraphs. WordPress is not letting me edit it correctly. Help would be appreciated.

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