March 4, 2005

The arrest of a suspect in the BTK serial murder case in Wichita, Kan., is shining a light on a common police beat practice — holding back.

In the 1970s, Cathy Henkel was a staff writer at the Wichita Sun, a weekly. She got a copy of a two-page letter BTK sent to police. She said there was no way the newspaper could run the whole letter. It was too graphic, she said, and police were of no help. As soon as the Wichita police chief learned she had a copy of the letter, she said he kicked her out of his office and refused to talk to her ever again.

Henkel, who now works at the Seattle Times (she wrote a column about the BTK case published in the Times Feb. 27), said she remembers discussing with her editor what to report about the letter. They talked about the graphic content and bad grammar. Her editor, she said, was also concerned about interfering with the police investigation.

“Nobody wanted to do anything to jeopardize the case,” she said in an telephone interview Friday.

Even though she doesn’t remember discussing it with her editor, Henkel said she doesn’t think there was information in that letter that,  if revealed to the public, would have caught the killer.

However, in the letter, BTK discusses four different knots he used to strangle his victims, she says. After police arrested Dennis Rader last week, The Wichita Eagle ran a story with the headline: Scouters recall Rader as good father, knot expert.

“This was Kansas,” Henkel said. “ Half the state was in Boy Scouts.”

Last year, reporters at The Wichita Eagle and ABC affiliate KAKE knew exactly what the killer had left in a box of clues. They even had copies of a word/number puzzle that identifies the suspect’s name and street number. They could describe a doll, with its hands tied behind its back with pantyhose and make-up on its face.

Again they kept the information from the public because the police asked. KAKE news director Glen Horn told the Eagle that police had asked the station to keep the doll secret because they were afraid airing it on television might “incite him (BTK) to further violence.”

He added: “Police were saying that seeing images of the doll could be so intense for him, it might lead him to commit more murders.”

This form of bargaining is a daily game for cops and courts reporters. I did that work for more than six years covering police departments as small as the Coeur d’Alene (Idaho) PD and as large as the Cleveland Police Department. It happens on stories as small as serial car burglaries and as big as serial killers. And I get calls for advice from reporters, producers and editors trying to navigate these same demands.

At the national and international level, government officials often appeal to national security as the reason to hold back information. Sometimes it backfires, as President Kennedy later acknowledged after he persuaded The New York Times to hold back information it had reported about an imminent invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1961.

At the local level, Cops and lawyers and investigators are always asking reporters to keep things out of the paper, off the air. Sometimes they have a good reason, such as protecting a witness who might be harmed if his or her identity was revealed. Sometimes they have a bad reason, such as buying more time to do certain interviews because a case is not adequately staffed. And sometimes they have no reasons, as least none that they’ll articulate.

Reporters have their own motives for cutting such deals. Mostly reporters are afraid they’ll be shut out of the information loop if they don’t comply with police requests. Sometimes, reporters worry they’ll lose a particular source they’ve worked hard to cultivate. Often reporters hope to endear themselves over time in order to gain special access. If I hold this out today, maybe you’ll give me an exclusive tomorrow. But that rarely works. The detective might call you first, but two hours later the competition has the story anyway.

To keep this short (since crime reporters never have any time anyway) I’m going to cut straight to the chase:
Cutting deals to withhold information is dangerous. It should be done with great caution, much forethought and only in rare circumstances.

Here’s a process:

  • First figure out where the information came from. Anything that can be found in a public record, anything that is voluntarily revealed by witnesses or is observed first-hand by a journalist should be considered fair game.

  • Coach your sources on the terms “off the record,” “for background” and “not for attribution.” Make sure they are using them correctly and don’t let lawyers and police officers, people who deal with the media all the time and should know better, make a habit of retroactively declaring something off the record. Instead, manage the relationship so they understand the boundaries before the big case comes up.

  • Information that comes from anonymous sources should be treated as such. Tell the cops what your standards are. For instance, you might withhold information because publishing it would violate your newsroom’s policy on such sourcing (or lack thereof). Don’t let your law enforcement sources think you’re doing law enforcement a favor. It muddies the relationship.

  • When a cop or a lawyer or an officer of the court asks you to hold back information, ask why. If he or she can’t give you a good reason, publish the information.

  • In the cases where investigators have a plausible request, don’t agree to anything without first talking it over with your editor or producer. And don’t agree to withhold information indefinitely. Ask: At what point will it be OK to publish this? Initially agree to only a short period of time, say 24 to 48 hours or maybe a week. Then review your decision.

  • Let your service to the public be your guide. Don’t withhold information that misleads or creates a false impression with the audience. Don’t cut deals because you believe it will help you beat the competition. Instead, agree to hold back if you think doing so serves the public good. But recognize that most of the time, revealing information serves that public good as much as concealing it.

Journalists who have covered BTK are haunted by how relevant the details they kept secret turned out to be. They are wondering if people who knew Rader as a neighbor, a scout master or a co-worker would have been able to identify him as the serial killer, if they’d had more clues to work with. It’s a good case study for crime reporters everywhere. In most cases we too readily agree with police and keep information from the public.

We better serve our watchdog role, the audience and in many cases the public’s safety, by doing what we do best — telling the story.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article included a quote, attributed to Cathy Henkel by the Los Angeles Times, indicating that she and her newspaper had collaborated with police about what information would be published concerning the BTK case in the 1970s. Henkel says she and her newspaper, the Wichita Sun, had no discussions with the police about what they would publish. The Times has since corrected its article. The Times article and correction can be found here.  

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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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