Ethics 2012: Case Study #4

Case Study #4: A Media-Savvy Killer

WHAT: It started three decades ago. “It has always been part of the paper’s lore,” Rick Thames, former editor of The Wichita Eagle told Editor & Publisher’s Joe Strupp. Since his first murder in 1974, the “BTK” killer — his own acronym, for “bind, torture, kill” — has sent the Eagle four letters and one poem.

The Eagle’s Website was subpoenaed in 2004 when investigators thought BTK might be posting items on a discussion board. And in the spring of 2005, the killer sent the paper a letter after 16 years of silence, apparently sparked by a story about the 30th anniversary of the first killing.

BTK killed eight people. The first was Jan. 15, 1974, the last 12 years later, in 1986. The killer’s first communication with the newspaper was 10 months after the first killing. A reader found a letter inside a book at a local library and called the newspaper. The last letter arrived in March 2004 and included photos from the 1986 crime scene, as well as a copy of that victim’s driver’s license. The killer also has sent letters and made phone calls to a local television station, but his main media connection has been the Eagle.

The newspaper has involved itself in the in other ways. In 1974, when it was still the Eagle-Beacon, it offered a $5,000 award for information leading to an arrest. And a 1978 poem from BTK was mistakenly included in romantic messages the paper runs on Valentine’s Day.

Eagle Reporter Hurst Laviana, who followed the case for more than 20 years, was one of three reporters who were asked to give DNA samples last summer, in a desperate attempt to find the mysterious killer. “It seemed like a logical thing for them to do,” Laviana told E&P, adding that police told him they’d received five tips from people urging that he be tested. Apparently he was cleared; he never heard back from investigators.

In April 2005, the Sedgwick County District Attorney subpoenaed the identities of six people who had posted items to a BTK bulletin board on the Eagle’s Web site. The Eagle cooperated without a fight but was criticized by the DA for running a story about the subpoenas.

All of this puts the newspaper in an awkward position. The killer seems almost to be using it as an agent of communication. It is both a provider of evidence and chronicler of the news. Some employees worried that BTK might target them as attention increases.

Two questions: How should a newspaper, or other media outlet, handle communications from someone who says he’s guilty of multiple sensational crimes? And how much should it cooperate with law enforcement authorities?

WHO: Put yourself in the shoes of the editor of the Eagle, or of a television station that might have received similar communications.

Consider the stakeholders: The Wichita community, terrorized for years by a mysterious killer, certainly has a stake in finding out who this person is and incarcerating him or her to prevent future potential harm. This is a case where the public’s stake is higher than it might be in other cases.

The killer is a prime stakeholder, an odd duck who seems to enjoy tantalizing the media and the public with taunts about his or her identity. Law enforcement authorities are stakeholders, in that they’ve been spinning their wheels for years.

WHY: Does cooperating with the killer by publicizing his taunts create more opportunities that he’ll be caught? Or does it simply play into the killer’s twisted desire for attention? What would happen if you were to stop forwarding every communication from this clearly imbalanced individual? What is the greatest good for the greatest number?

HOW: Decide how best to establish the outcome you’ve identified as best. Explain it to yourself, and write it down to help you articulate it. You might also want to explain your decision, and the decision-making process, to your readers and/or viewers. Prepare for the inevitable questions you’ll get from them.

12 comments on “Ethics 2012: Case Study #4
  1. I think if I were put into a position on whether or not to publish the letters, I would publish them. It might make the killer feel like a celebrity and keep killing, but if I didn’t publish it he would probably continue killing anyways. As for cooperating with law enforcement, I don’t think I would be able to not cooperate. If I really wanted this killer caught I would let them know anything I knew. It would help them even if the information wasn’t relevant. I would have wanted to catch this person who had done so much damage. I would also publish the stories so that the public would know what was happening. I would want to know if my family was in danger and I would want the media to report it. If people ask why I’ve continued to publish these letters I’ll tell them that it is for the best interest of the public. I would also put a story in the paper explaining what the letter’s about. The story would gave a number for the local police department and it would say if they called they could be an anonymous source. These would hopefully help catch the killer, which is the goal.

  2. Kate Hagans says:

    Kate Hagans

    The fourth case study, about BTK one of the most famous killers there is. But what would you do if people came to you for turning themselves in being BTK? Should your newspaper handle that type of outside information. You obviously can’t turn someone away if they say they’re guilty of something. Would you pay for information? How do you know that information for be true or false. So many questions to answer when a murder is involved. Deciding what is best for you newspaper can be tough, what and what not to print. When it comes to cooperating with law enforcement authorities, there becomes a thin line before you’ve had enough and won’t cooperate anymore, or should you even have contact with the law? I think you should work with the law enforcement to help catch the killer and protect people from being endangered. The stakeholders are the Wichita community, BTK, and potently any of BTK future victims. I would print the letters.

  3. If I were in the position to make a the decision in weather to publish inappropriate confessions of a massive serial killer, I would choose to publish the letters, but not without contacting higher authorities. They would be the ones to truly be responsible for it. I would continue to keep up on updates on the case to present a great story. I feel that this sort of situation needs to be taken up with the law enforcement’s responsibilities and not the local newspaper. If I wanted to become a police officer I would have done that instead. I look at it as, this is there problem not mine. I also feel that if I chose to run the letters without notifying law enforcement I think it would look bad on the law enforcements part. I would like a loser if I was the head of law enforcements and I found out by reading it in the newspaper. I think publishing the letters would increase the killers publicity, but I also think it will give law enforcement a better perspective on how to catch someone like this. I think it would will increase this opportunity because it can leave clues and eliminate suspects. I think not publishing the letters would increase his desire to kill, so he could gain more publicity. I also think that by publishing the letters, it will create more chance to catch the killer.

  4. Ace Rivera says:

    Seeing this in the point of view as the editor of the Eagle who was receiving letters from the mysterious killer know as BTK. He has infamously been the talk of many radio station and news broadcast. Why he wasn’t stopped after his first crime is frighting, to think that he had gotten away for so many years without any evidence towards him. if i had been the one to know some information from this man i would immediately let authorities know so they could open an investigation to put this man behind bars. No one but God should have the decision to decide who lives or dies! The only stakeholder in this situation would be the people who BTK says he is going to murder. If people that have this information should let officers of the law know i would propose to write a huge description about it in the news, for reasons that lives are in danger. Just little bits of information not to inspire BTK to continue with the killing, but some how eventually his time will come that with all the talk and rewards being brought up for those that have any information of him all the pressure would cause him to make mistake and he’d be caught and put to justice.

  5. katieshow!:) says:

    Isn't it illegal to withhold information concerning a murder to the police? There is no way a newspaper could keep this a secret until they published it, and a backlash from the authorities would not be worth the risk. It would be extremely important to give the police all the information received, especially because it would help the investigation. Despite the fact BTK obviously got some sick sense of satisfaction from seeing his name in print, this is something that needs to be reported. The safety of the community is at risk. Possibly calling him out on his intentions of trying to be famous (or infamous) would spoil his pride. Another way would be to not publish his disturbing letters and poems. The only important part would be the information concerning the murders. It would also be important to contact the family of the murder victims. Perhaps there are details they wish to be known or not known, especially since the killings were particularly gruesome. The family would not want to relive every bit of their loved ones death each time they turned on the television. The public needs to be informed, the paper needs to work with the police, and BTK should not be depicted as an antihero.

  6. Nikki says:

    I would publish the letters so people know what is happening and that there is a murder on the lose. Plus a story like thiis would be a hit everyone would want to keeping buying the newspapers to know what is happening in the case. The bad guy always gets cought some how they mess up and the police finds out who they are. BTK messed up by sending the disc that was traced back to his church. Of course some people might think that you are falling right in to the killers plans by going along but you could catch them off guard and might mess up. BTK was smart when it came to killing how he watched the people and knew everything they did when they left when they were home. With the newspapers publishing everything he wrote he had to come up with more stuff and the cops were getting to know him better and better by every letter or poem he wrote. If it wasn't for the mewspaper doing what they did who knows if we would have cought BTF. So i think they did the right thing by publishing the letters and stuff.

  7. Darianne (: says:

    if i was recieveing mysterious letters from a “killer” i wouldnt no what to do. i would be really freaked out. but i dont think i could keep it a secret, just cause then i would be afraid of my own saftey! i think id go to the law enforcement first. i dont understand why he would of wanted his name “BTK” to be published worldwide? wouldnt that maybe be a step forward for enforcement to catch you? i would not of published anything from him though, just cause of the fact that he would get satisfaction out of it. if it was my family, i would not want anyone seeing anything, i would want to keep it personal until i was comfortable with it being published. it ended up that he got himself caught, and i dont feel any sorrow for him whatsoever, i just dont understand why? why do people have the desire to kill one another? people who murder people, should be killed in the most painful way ever. it does seem like the media gave him more attention, than i think any person should get. now he is known worldwide, for doing the most disgusting things a person can do. the fact that more of them were women. it is absolutley horrifying to know someone could do such as thing! why is this man still alive?!?!

  8. Ethics #4
    Lauren’s Response

    No matter how it is presented, or what information you release the information, the BTK story was, and still is a terrifying part of our Kansas history. Even those who lived far from Wichita were terrified of the horror stories. If i was put in the shoes of the Editor’s position, one has to be very careful about releasing such touchy information.

    For the public’s safety, believe it is okay to release some information without blowing the story more out of proportion than it already has been. Show the facts people need to know to keep safe, but do not show the actual letter. Information can be release about them, but showing them just makes people too nervous.

    It would be a tough call to make if I were in the Editor’s position, but overall I would release the information from the letters, but would not read whole passages. Even though it would make some people unhappy, you have to look out for the best for the whole population, not just certain people. You have to be able to present the story in a way which will help those feel more secure about the story, and not be terrified to sleep at night.

  9. Andrew says:

    If I was in the position of deciding whether or not to publish the information by BTK, I would put a lot of thought into it. Eventually, I think I would settle on publishing the information, but only after alerting the proper authorities. After all, it is their investigation and I wouldn’t want to interfere with it. I don’t believe it would fuel the messed up man to kill anymore people than those who were already on the list. BTK seemed to have his mind made up on who and when he was going to kill, so the public probably wouldn’t have influenced him very much in that aspect. The public would obviously be interested in why I chose to take this line of action, so I would explain myself as simply as I could: I believe it is in the best interest to the people of Wichita if the information about a serial killer in their community is made public, as long as the information disclosed doesn’t hinder the investigation of any law enforcement agency. Everyone of the stakeholders would benefit from this decision: The citizens of Wichita would be safer; the killer would be locked up where he couldn’t hurt anyone else; and the WPD would have arrested one of the most famous killers of modern times.

  10. Ashley Stull says:

    I believe that they should inform the community of BTK. I wouldn’t print the direct letter that BTK sent. I believe that the people need to know that they need to up their security even more now. I don’t care if all this media attention ups makes him want to kill even more. The people need to know what is going on. If they read my story the should know that he is making a threat and that they need to be on their toes. I would also go to the police, and give them the letter that he sent me. The police need to know that they need to be on their toes and to be ready and more secure. Either way it’s a lose lose situation for me. If I don’t tell people it’s my fault for not telling the people that he made a threat and that we need to be on our toes and more secure. If I do tell the people it’s may fault because I keep giving him media attention and that just boasted his ego and made him want to kill even more. So I would rather publish my story, and tell the people that they need to be more safe and be on their toes than to not publish my story and have even more people killed because they weren’t warned that the killer is making a threat to kill again.

  11. Renee Horton says:

    I believe that they should inform the people of BTK because he is pretty much following women around and when he knew that they were at home alone he would be waiting in their house. So yes I think the people should know that where the can get him because he is killing women and when he sent letter and poems and pictures and videos to the Wichita Eagle. He would let the Eagle know what he is doing and he would leave thing saying that he is hear or back. When he was working he would also follow these women around and find out when the women husband and kids are gone and he would wait tell they left and he would sneak in and wait for them and attack them and when he was done he would take pictures and some of them he would send them to the Eagle and he would let them know what he did. BTK end up killing ten women before he sent a videos and the police traced the videos to his church and then the got him and he told just flat out told them that he killed each one of them and he went to jail for the rest of him life.

    Renee Horton

  12. Saulk says:

    If i was a reporter and i got told to work on a story about B.T.K i would do what i ever have in my power to not get it. Although it could make a big story i would not do it for many reasons. First reason would be because if i were to write about him and say something that people didn't like or fine offencive they can throw a fit and it can cause a big problem for either the reporter or the company. The other reason would be because knowing the things he has done there would be a lot of things to talk about him. Putting out a reword for the killer isn't a good way to catch the killer either and it isn't a good idea either. It wouldn't be a good idea because it can bring more trouble then what it already is. Some people wouldn't think its true and others would do anything to try and be the first person to catch what they are looking for. And say if they did fine what they wanted and they tell them that there isn't a reword they can either get mad about it or they can bring the cops involved.

    Saul Rivera