Anyone visiting a British newspaper Web site in the last two weeks will have seen a photograph of two smiling 10-year-old girls in bright red shirts. The photograph was taken on Aug. 4, just two hours before the girls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, disappeared, and it became the graphic symbol of endless press reports about the search for the missing children (see, for example, this compilation of Daily Mirror covers). On Saturday, the girls’ bodies were discovered, and a local couple was arrested on suspicion of abduction and murder. The Times declared, “No case of missing children, among several that have haunted the nation in recent years, has had such a numbing impact on the whole country. It has been a terrible saga of extraordinary emotional intensity.”
According to the Independent, most of the 400 journalists, photographers, and producers who had decamped to the tiny Cambridgeshire town of Soham for the duration of the investigation complied with a police request to leave town by midnight Saturday, but the broadsheets immediately began to question the blanket media coverage of the story.
The Independent said it understood why the story was so big—”the pictures of the two girls in their Manchester United shirts were so compelling that their publication provoked the sympathy of the entire nation”—but it worried that the media attention had made the police’s job more difficult. A million-pound reward from the Daily Express “encouraged people with useless information to drain police resources by making up to 1,000 phone calls a day. And the people of Soham had to put up with fortune seekers coming to their town to seek in the much-searched environs for a clue that others might have somehow missed.” A detailed case summary in the Observer pointed out that managing the media took up precious police time: “The police were walking a tightrope. They needed to keep the media spotlight focused: it was their best hope of turning up a lead. But the media could work in reverse: it was their biggest enemy in throwing up false trails.”
Le Temps of Geneva, Switzerland, wondered if “this huge exercise in collective compassion” was an example of “solidarity in the face of unbearable suffering or an unjustified media outburst.” It concluded, “While there may be some commercial exploitation involved in the way feeling about the two British schoolgirls were mobilized, this is not just a media fabrication.” An op-ed in the Times asked the same question and concluded that the “mawkish tears” of “self-indulgent reporters telling us how they have been affected by a tragedy in which they had no part” were an “insult.”