Why does it matter: a dramatic example from the JonBenét murder case

JonBenét Ramsey: 6 year-old beauty queen murdered in 1996

Have you heard the news? Words long hidden in a scratchy 20-year-old audio recording have recently been miraculously revealed, pointing to the guilt of a brutal killer.

Depending on your age, you might recall the tragic 1996 murder of JonBenét Ramsey, the 6 year-old beauty queen murdered in 1996.

The audio comes from the end of the 911 call in which little JonBenét was reported missing.

We have it here for you to hear for yourself.

SO – how did you go? Were you impressed by the new revelations of guilt?

If you are like most people, you probably struggled to make out any words at all. You might be marvelling at the skill of an audio engineer who can turn such a weird sound into intelligible speech.

Well before you marvel more – you should know that the audio you just listened to is the ‘enhanced’ version, the one investigators claim helps solve the mystery of who killed JonBenét.

So now you’ve had a chance to listen to the audio yourself – you’ll want to know what the investigators made of it.

Here’s the 9 NEWS story reporting the new findings that unmask the killer. Or here’s the story from the ABC (official Australian broadcaster). And below you can find an edited clip (50sec) showing part of the ‘enhancing’ and its effects.

If you want more, the full movie is here. Discussion of the 911 call is near the beginning – but watch the rest for other ‘analyses’ of written and spoken language that many linguists would find concerning at best.

Now just to be clear

I know nothing about the JonBenét murder and have no opinion about who might or might not be guilty. What I do know is that opinions such as those expressed in this TV show about the contents of indistinct audio are highly misleading.

The only thing that gets enhanced by ‘enhancing’ techniques such as those used in the JonBenét show is the confidence with which listeners can be taken in by erroneous interpretations of the content of the audio (see the Forensic Transcription module for more on this).

How effective was the ‘enhancing’?

The presenters of the TV show act as if the words they hear are being revealed for the first time by the sound engineer’s techniques – and many commentators and news outlets seem to accept this (though not all are fooled, as you can read in Stop Press below).

But there’s another technique that must have played quite a role too. You can get a quick impression of how it works by following this link to another case very similar to the JonBenét one that reveals the secret technique used by engineers who ‘enhance’ audio like this.

Don’t worry, it will only take a moment and it is definitely impressive – plus it has a link to  bring you straight back here .

Stop press!

It’s good to know not ALL news outlets uncritically accept the JonBenét movie’s claims: some interesting additional background here at Rolling Stone. As journalist Amelia McDonell Parry discovers, the investigators in the new film aren’t just guessing the words from context, they are quoting words previously guessed by other investigators in 1998.


Have you been wondering what the original audio sounded like, in comparison with the ‘enhanced’ version above? Here it is for you to compare: