A New Twist in Tangled Relationship Between Press, Cops in BTK Case

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By: Brian Orloff

The local media in Wichita, Kan., have long been connected to the BTK murders. Now that a BTK suspect has been arrested, local law-enforcement officials are instead decrying the media. And the local paper is fighting back.

In an interview with The Wichita Eagle Monday, Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams said he was misquoted by CNN — which reported Williams saying that BTK suspect Dennis L. Rader was cooperating with law enforcement — and lambasted reports containing, he said, speculation and misinformation. At a media briefing that morning, the chief even threatened to sue those spreading it.

The Eagle then responded with a Tuesday editorial suggesting that the media and police must continue to cooperate throughout the investigation, as they have in the past. Ever since serial killer BTK first struck in 1974, his crime spree and the newspaper have been intertwined. The Eagle received letters and poems from the killer, and its Web site was once subpoenaed by investigators. Last summer, newspaper staffers were asked to give DNA samples to investigators.

By Monday, Chief Williams suggested the press was no longer being so helpful. An example he gave of the recent distortions was the suggestion that Rader was being held for more than 10 killings. Not true, Williams said. “At this time, Dennis Rader has been connected to only 10,” he told the press. The police department also refused to comment on reports that Rader’s daughter played in his arrest.

At press time, Williams refused to comment to E&P about a potential lawsuit.

The Eagle’s reply editorial, written by Randy Scholfield, ran under the headline “Media, police each have public role.” It suggested that “frustration got the better” of Williams, inciting his temper.

“The general consensus was that we needed to respond to what he had said and acknowledge his frustration,” Scholfield told E&P. “I think it’s a difficult position he’s in, and obviously the police have what they see as a role to protect the evidence and make sure they have a successful prosecution. But they need to understand the media’s role. I was trying to say, for the editorial board, that the media has its legitimate role as well.”

The editorial said: “Good luck, chief, in stopping speculation about the biggest criminal case in Wichita’s history, a case drawing major national and even international coverage.” It contended that though Williams has the right and obligation to correct misinformation, the friction that exists between media and law-enforcement agencies in high profile cases is also legitimate.

“The media do need to be responsible,” Scholfield said. “At the same time … as far as the police/media relationship, the police like to often think of the media as partners when it’s in their interest and as adversaries when it’s not. Sometimes it’s a little tricky negotiating that relationship in a high-profile case.”

Scholfield’s editorial continued to call on journalists to be fair and accurate in reporting but concluded: “The police and district attorney should give the public as much information as possible without jeopardizing their case.”

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