A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Media Leaders Forum: A killer among us

By Quill

This is the 14th in a series of case studies exploring how top media managers make difficult decisions.

The development of DNA testing has changed law enforcement. Suspects now can be ruled out or arrested based on DNA matches. However, there is concern that individual rights could be sacrificed, especially in a climate of community fear and pressure on law enforcement officers to solve sensational murder cases.

The relationship between the media and law enforcement also is changing. The increase in public information officers who deal with reporters has overtaken the beat reporter/police officer relationship. It has become more difficult for reporters to cultivate relationships with individual officers who might give them exclusive information. Press conferences now are used to release information to all media at the same time. However, broadcast stations often get an edge because news conferences are timed to allow news to break during the 6 o’clock newscast. What happens when media competition contributes to rising fear in the community and frustrates law enforcement officers who want to solve high profile murder cases?


A killer among us

KTRZ-TV News Director Jerri Sutton was furious. She opened the local morning newspaper to see a police artist sketch of a suspected serial killer who had been terrorizing women in a mid-size Southern city for nearly a year. Although the police were holding daily news conferences about the investigation into the deaths of five women, they had told reporters the sketch would not be ready for another day or two. Obviously, the police had deliberately withheld the sketch so that the print competition would get it first.

Sutton knew Sid Roamer, the police captain in charge of the investigation, was unhappy with the local television coverage of the search for the killer. In particular, KTRZ and KZZB-TV, Sutton’s main competition, had upset Roamer when they independently tracked down a possible witness who might have seen a light-colored pickup truck in the area where the most recent victim’s body had been found a week ago. Although neither station had identified the witness, both had gotten him to give them a partial license plate number that he claimed he had recalled under hypnosis.

During the past two months, police have collected more than 500 DNA samples from men who had ties to the area in hopes of matching DNA taken from one of them to DNA evidence collected from the bodies of the victims. Two of KTRZ’s male reporters were uncomfortable with such widespread collection and had complained that the police might be conducting a “witch hunt” and trampling on individual rights because of the pressure they were feeling from the media and community to bring the killer to justice. The police had been unwilling to explain exactly how they selected the men asked to give DNA samples, although they have said that only three of the men approached had refused to voluntarily give samples, prompting court orders.

In addition, police had methodically been checking the owners of hundreds of white-and-silver pickup trucks in the area. A number of male drivers of light-colored pickups were stopped, some several times by different police officers. Some of the “suspects” became so tired of being stopped that they put up signs that read, “I’m NOT the killer!” in the back windows of their trucks.

KTRZ also had interviewed a former FBI profiler who was a friend of the 10 p.m. news anchor. Although this profiler had no connection to the case, he was critical of the police- and FBI-issued profile of the killer, suggesting that women were being put in danger because the focus was too narrow.

In the course of the investigation into the three women’s deaths, KTRZ reporters discovered that the murders of more than 40 area women have gone unsolved in the past eight years. Two-thirds of these women were black. KTRZ ran an investigative piece indicating that the police have used considerably more resources investigating the deaths of the white victims. They did not report that police suspect as many as seven of these women might be linked to the serial killer, but they lacked the DNA evidence to be sure.

When a sixth woman disappeared, prompting a two-day search through the area where the other bodies had been found, KTRZ suggested that the serial killer might have struck again. However, soon after her body was found, her boyfriend was arrested. He admitted he had been attempting to copy the killer based on media reports he had seen so as to throw suspicion away from himself.

The police PR director, Susie Kotter, had relayed Roamer’s displeasure in a phone call to Sutton the previous day. She said the race issue and the criticism from the outside profiler particularly upset Roamer because he said police officers had to waste valuable time responding to the criticism. Roamer also suggested through Kotter that calling attention to “a media-devised issue that does not exist in reality” will not help race relations in the community. He charged that the media, not the police, have ignored the black victims and that media reports had led to the copy-cat killing. Also, the FBI profiler who was working on the case was concerned that the killer would strike again if he thought police were distracted by other issues.

Then Kotter told Sutton that the police would have a news conference the following day to provide additional evidence found at the sites where the victims’ bodies were dumped. They would also release the sketch at this conference. Sutton assumed that they were back to business as usual. But the front-page story spread out in front of her now said otherwise.

The number of calls to an information hotline set up specifically for this case quadrupled with the release of the sketch. Very shortly, Sutton was faced with a new dilemma. One of her cameramen, Sid Ramirez, came in with some new footage. One of his neighbors, Virgil Jackson, resembled the sketch and someone, whom he claimed had a vendetta against him, had called the police hotline. Jackson also drives a white pickup and works for a local delivery company, both of which fit the FBI profile. Jackson had called Ramirez and asked him to give him a chance to deny that he was the killer. Ramirez didn’t think he had time to bring a reporter to the scene, so he let the camera roll while Jackson reiterated that someone with a grudge was trying to frame him and that he absolutely was not the killer. He told Jackson that he had given a sample of DNA to the police and that because he feared harassment from the victims’ relatives, he was going to a place where no one would be able to reach him for as long as it took for the police to get the DNA evidence analyzed. The video ends as he drives off in his white pickup with his “I’m NOT the killer” sign in the back window.

Sutton reviewed the video with two male and two female reporters. Although everyone thought it was strange that Jackson would seek this kind of publicity, the male reporters thought they should air the footage to illustrate how out of bounds the search had become. The women, however, thought that the station should not air any further stories that might interfere with the police investigation, pointing out that this man was a legitimate suspect, that the public could be inflamed against him and that police might withhold future information if they didn’t like the report. They also feared that the killer might strike again if he felt that he was not under scrutiny. Sutton must weigh her desire to beat the competition by airing this exclusive footage with the certainty of angering the police captain even more. How can she best serve the community and her station’s audience?


How the leaders handled the case

Should KTRZ air the footage of the suspect denying that he is involved if DNA test results are not available? Why or why not?

Bill McCloskey:I think this clip falls under the rubric “no news is no news.” Why air it? No one has confirmed that Jackson was questioned by anyone. No one interviewed the person with the alleged vendetta who may or may not have called police. No one has confirmed that Jackson gave DNA. This is at best a 20 percent complete newsgathering effort. There is no news in who is NOT the killer. The news would be knowing who IS the killer. This is a good tape to keep on file in case Jackson is later charged.

Arlene Morgan: It is the job of the news station to report the news and all the aspects surrounding this case. It seems that someone who is a target and who has willingly given his DNA to the police has the right to discuss the tactics that the police are using to investigate suspects. I would use the piece, but I would give this story some time, not relegate it to a 10-second sound bite. I would insist the reporter also include the police comments on the state of the investigation, including the dismay over the media’s attention to it.

Marcy McGinnis: I think KTRZ should not air the footage. I think the station must put in context and corroborate any information it airs. To air raw footage of the man with the white pickup does nothing for the story except (as the male reporters note) to show how out of bounds the story has become. Would KTRZ then air the denials of EVERY man who drives a light colored truck? I doubt it. I don’t think it advances the story and potentially complicates it, plus it could put a face to a possible suspect who is innocent.

Bob Priddy: No. First, video does not make a story. That might surprise some of my colleagues in television who mistakenly think that a story is not a story without pictures. A story should stand on its own merits. This is only some videotape and the content is questionable. Everything is based on Virgil Jackson’s claims and only on his claims. “Someone” has a vendetta against him. Who? He fears harassment from victims’ relatives. Is there any record among the other 499 DNA donors that such harassment has happened? Has anybody ever talked with relatives to see what they are doing about the 500 donors?

Sid Ramirez showed some good initiative. He should have asked Jackson to go to the station on his way out of town and be interviewed by a reporter there. But it appears Ramirez might have been caught up in the heat of the competition and thought only of having exclusive video. Exclusive video with no context is not enough. The male reporters are partly correct. A story should be done. But the assumption that the story should be done to show “how out of bounds the search has become” is not the angle. Jackson’s story alone is not enough.

Jackson’s story and stories of others caught up in this investigation, coupled with victims’ families reactions and further questions of the police (or attempts to get answers) about the wide-ranging nature of the investigation, make a decent package. It should not be done to show “how out of bounds the search has become” unless KTRZ wants to cover its own contribution to that situation. And KTRZ is not likely to admit it is an accomplice in this case.

Furthermore, basing a story on “how out of bounds, etc.,” sets an agenda that can leave viewers asking whether it’s more important to the station to carry out a vendetta than it is to report the story.

Bruce Tomaso: On a very slow news day, I might air the footage, but otherwise I would not – and not to avoid incurring the police captain’s renewed wrath, but because the footage isn’t news.

Virgil claims that someone’s called the hotline to report him, and that this person did so because of a vendetta. He claims he’s given a DNA sample. He claims that he fears harassment. But how do we know that any of this is true?

He hasn’t been arrested. He hasn’t even been, as far as we know, questioned. There’s nothing in the facts presented to suggest that the authorities think he’s involved in these crimes. So why put him on the air to profess his innocence, when no one (except him) has suggested that he is anything other than innocent? Hell, you could make it a nightly series: Men Who Say They Are Not the Serial Killer.

If Virgil were arrested, or charged, or identified by the authorities as a suspect, then, sure, I would run the footage giving his side. Or, if the station wanted to do a larger piece, looking at how many men in the community were feeling uncomfortable because of the wide net the cops had cast, then maybe this would fit in as part of that piece. But on its own, it’s nada.

David Anable: Yes … in principle. The basic ethic of journalism is to publish. Informing the public is the point of a free press. Only a few exceptions – such as saving lives or genuine national security – are acceptable. Sutton’s concern about angering the police captain is irrelevant to such a decision. The reporters are right that this is a valid story overall. But much depends on how it is “published.” For instance, this particular TV footage should only be aired after the station has at least tried to find out from the police the status of this “suspect.” And the report should place the footage in the context of the whole investigation, so that any alternative killer does not feel free to strike again.

Does the public’s right to know outweigh the need for the police to withhold some information about the killer or the crime scenes? Consider whether the media should ever agree to withhold information, what role the media have in an investigation of this sort and whether the media should be held responsible for copycats if they have released information the police wish to keep quiet.

BM: Police can withhold whatever they want. Whether the media should agree to withhold some piece of evidence that a) a cop freelancing in PR wants to tell a reporter about or b) the media finds out on its own, is a different question. If the police can make a case for withholding information, sure the media can withhold it. When deciding what goes into a 23-minute news hole, the media is deciding every day what information to “withhold” from the public. If the media were to be held responsible for “copycats,” reporters could never report red-light runners, embezzlers or bank robbers for fear someone else would run a red light, embezzle or rob.

AM: It depends. The police should withhold whatever it thinks it needs to withhold in order to protect the public and catch the killer. The police should be forthright it saying what it can and cannot give out.

If a reporter learns about something that is off the record, then he or she has to stick to that agreement. If a reporter learns about a part of the investigation through his or her own reporting, then the reporter has an ethical responsibility to weigh all the factors for or against going with it. That discussion, however, belongs in the newsroom, not in police headquarters.

Frankly, my real concern is the increase in how the news media, especially on the talking heads cable TV shows, speculate freely on cases like this, often without any concrete reporting. I think the overabundance of attention to these salacious stories could create a copycat issue.

MM: The police and the media each has a job to do. The media is NOT an adjunct of the police; however, the media are also citizens of the community. The end goal for both is the capture of the serial killer, and I think that the police can make a case for withholding some of the evidence, and the media can challenge that decision and then come to a decision whether to go along or not. If they chose not to withhold information, they risk that their sources of police information will dry up. But if the media feel strongly that withholding the information is wrong, they should not. The media have a responsibility to the community. And the community needs to know that the media will continue to shine a light on the investigation and ask questions and help dispel fear by keeping the community up to date on what’s happening.

BP: Exactly what DOES the public have a right to know about a crime? I sense that there needs to be more discussion about that in this newsroom. There are legitimate times for the media to sit on information. But that’s awkward. It’s best to have an understanding with police that what they don’t want reporters to know shouldn’t be said. What the news media develop on their own should be carefully evaluated by the reporters and their editors before it is used. It should be used because it is news, not because it is an exclusive, not because it is good video or audio. Blaming the news media for causing copycat crimes is an unrealistic accusation. We cannot dismiss such criticism because we do know people do things because they hear about them from the media. The alternative is to say nothing about a crime on the theory that ignorance creates safety. That is an unrealistic assumption. Public safety is better protected with proper openness and good editorial judgment. If the media and the police become such antagonists, as appears to be the case here, neither interest is served.

BT: Rarely, I think, a news organization is justified in withholding information that the police wish to see withheld. I might do so if I were convinced (and I would not be easily convinced) that cooperating with the authorities would aid in the capture of the killer. The “public’s right to know” the details of an ongoing investigation does not, in my mind, outweigh the public good to be found in keeping more innocent women from being slaughtered.

That said, my experience is that the cops make requests of this sort far, far more often than is necessary to preserve the common peace. Most of the time, the details they want withheld are things the killer already knows. Most of the time, publishing those details doesn’t do anything to set back the investigation. And most of the time, copycats are so ham-handed that they’re quickly and easily found out.

DA: No. The U.S. Constitution guarantees a free press. It does not provide for any so-called “public right to know,” except in specific areas such as “a speedy and public trial.” Of course the police should withhold information about a crime scene or a killer if that significantly increases the chances of catching the killer, protecting the public and perhaps saving lives. The press is free to investigate such police actions and enable the public subsequently to judge if the actions were, or were not, justified.

And, yes, of course the media should on occasion themselves decide to withhold information, if doing so is clearly in the public interest and has the potential to save lives. Once the need to withhold that information is over, then the full story should be aired along with an explanation as to why it was temporarily withheld.

How important is it for Sutton to keep the station’s relationship with the police cordial or to at least re-establish a more trusting relationship with the police captain in this case?

BM: It is important for a news director to have a professional relationship with all sources. In some cities, police and media meet regularly to discuss how each cannot interfere with the other’s activities without having such facilitation get in the way of those activities. There are many simple courtesies that each side can engage in – like reporters remembering to wear police-issued press IDs when working at a crime scene – that can just make it easier on all concerned.

AM: Clearly, Sutton has some work to do with the Police Department if she wants to continue to get factual information out to the public in a timely manner. She needs to set up some ground rules with her staff and the police chief on how to move forward on this. Still, she must be firm with the responsibility the station has to call the story as it sees it. The racial aspect to the story is an important one and needs to be reported. The police will come around, no matter the current displeasure, because they need the mass TV audience, considering how the public relies on it to get its news.

MM: It is very important to have a relationship with the police department. You do this by fair and accurate reporting. The police department does not have to like what you’re reporting, but if they have to grudgingly admit it’s fair, you can probably maintain a dialogue whereby you can at least check out leads and be in the loop. Perhaps you could do this by having coffee with the chief and setting out the ground rules and letting him vent on what he perceives went wrong.

BP: It is vitally important for her to start rebuilding the bridge. I’m not sure, based on this scenario, that she is in any frame of mind to do it, though. She is in a state of high urinary agitation; she’s caught up in a competitive situation that already has caused problems; she’s likely to have staff members who feed off her anger. If she thinks the police are discriminating against the television media, she’s the one who needs to start the process because it is doubtful the police will. But she better cool off first. Stomping into the police station with harsh words and steam rising from around the collar is not nearly as effective as strolling in with goodies.

It’s time for Sutton to stop by the doughnut store, then go to the police station. Whether you consider the doughnuts a peace offering or not, they’ll help lower the temperature in the room when she gets there. Have some coffee with Captain Roamer AND the chief of police. Her best approach would be to spend the large part of the time listening. If she walks in there in a defensive mood, she accomplishes nothing. She listens. She evaluates what’s said. She looks back at some of the questionable judgments she and her staff have made. She acknowledges that they might (note the word “might”) have mishandled some stories. But she also has to express her concerns about the widespread scope of the search and the lack of justification police give for it and for the stress it is causing not only on the targeted 500, but on the rest of the town.

Both sides need to vent. Both sides need to have a better understanding of each other’s roles. That gets lost when situations like this begin to spool up. If she doesn’t make this move in the right way, the situation will only grow worse.

BT: The best – really, the only – way to keep relations with official sources cordial is to make sure your reporting is, day in and day out, fair, balanced, complete and accurate. The way to build trust is to make sure sources know they can and should call you if your reporting falls short of those marks, and to promptly and straightforwardly correct any errors.

Neither the police captain nor the president of the United States has a right to ask any more than that. To attempt to curry favor by cutting deals with the captain will, in the end, always be a losing proposition. He won’t respect you in the morning. And your viewers won’t have any reason to.

DA: What matters is a professional relationship, based as far as possible on mutual respect and trust. Normally, this would help the station obtain accurate and timely reports for public viewing. There is a risk in getting too cordial. The station should always bear in mind the possibility that it may have to investigate public authorities, including the police. Hence Sutton’s responsibility is to earn the respect of the public, and if possible of the police, by the accuracy and fairness of her station’s reporting – as well as its firmness in refusing to be manipulated by any authorities.

This case study was written by members of the Media Leaders Forum at the Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana State University: Associate Professor Judith Sylvester, Assistant Professor Renita Coleman and Assistant Professor Craig Freeman, assisted by graduate student Simon Sinaga.

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