Wednesday, December 1, 2010

BTK and the Media

Greetings, Ethics &Trends in News Media Section 3.

My presentation dealt with Dennis Rader (AKA the BTK Killer) and his personal contact with the media. What follows is an overview, complete with more details on the case. Enjoy!

Rader was a native of Wichita, Kansas. He married, started a family, and was a leader in his church and his community, even serving as president of his church congregation at Christ Lutheran (ELCA, in case you were wondering.) While he was doing this, he also committed his known murders from the early 1970s to 1991, starting with four members of the Otero family on January 15, 1974. Here is a link to an overview of Rader's crimes.

Throughout his killing career, Rader taunted the police and the media by communicating with them directly. He sent packages to both the police and the media. Rader's first communication occured October of 1974, approximately ten months after the Otero family murders. During the 1970s, the killer sent letters to The Wichita Eagle, KAKE-TV (the ABC affiliate) and KSAS (the Fox affiliate.) His messages contained graphic details regarding the murders. His first message was found in the Wichita Public Library and contained a detailed description of the Otero killings. He suggested people refer to him as BTK because he liked to "bind them, torture them, and kill them."

BTK used his acronym as a signature to mark his work.

Sometimes, Rader addressed reporters personally, as seen when he apologized for two anchors' colds. He often referred to other correspondence when writing to news outlets and spoke in a conversational tone, as seen in the previous link when he asked them to let him know whether they received the package at Home Depot and added "Thanks." For a map of BTK's actions, click here.

The media published information on BTK, but didn't necessarily reveal everything disclosed to him by the killer. This was often in compliance with police request. Robert Beattie, who later wrote a book about BTK, said that showed a puzzle from Rader's correspondence and showed it to a local Mensa Club, the members of which pleaded him to ignore police requests to remain silent and share the puzzle with the public in the hopes that someone could discover its meaning.

Because they reported on Rader's crimes after they had been contacted by him, some reporters were seen as accomplices to his crimes. Cliff Kincaid wrote, “Mad dogs after meat. Sharks after blood in the water. These are phrases that describe the media. They loved Dennis Rader and he loved them. They all have blood on their hands. And Rader sits in prison waiting for another media call.”

In an interview with Larry King, Hurst Laviana said, "I have regrets for holding things back. . .I wonder now whether we did the right thing, of editing the evidence. Would the police have been able to find a suspect sooner? Did we do the public a disservice?"

NEW: However, according to Brian Orloff, Laviana later "told [Editor & Publisher] that he feels comfortable with the Eagle's treatment of the evidence. He says the paper only refused to publish one letter with a BTK signature and a series of numbers and letters, which it published Wednesday." (The link was my addition. Orloff's complete article can be found here.) Laviana said they withheld details such as his signature to help police "weed out the copycats" and make the killer more identifiable.

Laviana described the "series of numbers and letters," saying it was "like gibberish. It didn't look like it meant anything. That's what I meant when I told the L.A. Times reporter that maybe that was not the right thing to do. I'm not saying it was the wrong thing to do, I'm not saying it was the right thing to do. But if there's anything to second guess, it would be that decision."

Among the items received by KAKE-TV were a puzzle filled with clues and a doll, its hands bound and a bag over its head.

The BTK Killer was silent for an extended period and resumed correspondence after the Eagle wrote an article to mark the anniversary of his killings. BTK was eventually caught based on information pulled from this correspondence.

In conclusion, I believe the media were not wrong to withhold some information when reporting the BTK killer's actions or sharing information with the police. While the SPJ code says to act independently, it's important to remember that sometimes working with the police can serve the good of the public. We shouldn't withhold information from the police for the sake of withholding information from the police; the same goes for divulging information to the general public. Above all, I would want to try my hardest to catch the creep who murdered people and give him as little attention as possible in the process. And if that's a form of bias, then so be it.

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