Crime Reporting: Too Much for Listeners? : NPR Public Editor Many listeners (and some NPR staffers) expressed their concerns about putting the voice of a serial killer on the air. Also, a debate over the meaning of the Supreme Court decision -- or lack of one.
NPR logo Crime Reporting: Too Much for Listeners?

Crime Reporting: Too Much for Listeners?

There's something about the human voice... with its enormous ability to inspire and to horrify.

That latter power was apparent when NPR aired the voice of the so-called "BTK" killer, Dennis Rader, on June 27 on All Things Considered. Rader admitted that it was he who terrorized Wichita, Kan., in a series of until-recently unsolved murders. Rader was asked by the judge to describe in detail how he killed each of his 10 victims. NPR and other broadcasters aired parts of his testimony.

Listeners -- a lot of them -- were shocked and appalled that NPR chose to report this and to air the voice of a killer:

Although there was a brief warning about graphic content I cannot understand why any/all of you would think it appropriate to air that broadcast in that way. I have never felt the need to make sure I'm present when my four children listen to your programming but that will have to change. As parents, each of us must walk the fine line; educating our children about the dangers that exist in our society while not filling their nights with bad dreams and creating a general distrust in their fellow man. What should I say to them about your broadcast? Is it important to provide that level of graphic detail to bring us the news?

Robert Millstein

I am becoming concerned with NPR's increasingly tabloid approach to news. Today's use of Dennis Rader's verbatim testimony went over the line. Rader's testimony in Greg Allen's report was outrageous, added nothing to the newsworthiness of the story, and was exploitive to the point of being pornographic. I believe that the news director who approved this segment owes NPR listeners an apology.

George Lopos

Listener Betty Belge called her NPR member station, WRVO in Rochester, N.Y., to say she found the piece unnecessarily graphic. She also expressed concern for the victims' families, who are now subjected to this retelling.

'Think of the Implications…'

Ken Barcus, the producer who worked with NPR's Greg Allen on the report from Wichita, replied:

This story was both compelling and difficult. The judge asked Rader for the details and there was much that we left out because it was far too brutal and graphic. But we felt that it was important to hear from a serial killer in his own words. There was never a moment when we didn't think of the implications of airing this.

Crime is not often covered by NPR. This is because crime, the staple of tabloids and local television news everywhere, does not carry much journalistic weight. This is a good thing, in my opinion, since there are often consequences -- and not good ones -- whenever the media engages in too much crime reporting.

Studies show that a disproportionate amount of ink and airtime devoted to crime tends to raise anxieties and exacerbate social tensions in communities.

Why Is Crime Reporting Up But Crime Rates Are Down?

The culture of crime reporting is an interesting phenomenon: according to Lawrence Friedman's "Crime and Punishment in America," crime reporting has risen by 700 percent in the United States since 1970, even as the nation's crime rate has declined by 4 percent during that same period. The country is actually safer than it used to be, but you might not be able to tell that from following the news in local papers or on local radio or television.

The increased attention has occurred partly because it is one of the cheapest beats in a news organization (you simply need someone who can establish and maintain good relations with the police), and because crime always attracts an audience.

Newcomers and Seasoned Veterans

Traditionally, crime reporters are drawn from two elements of the newsroom: from beginners who "need to be toughened up," according to grizzled newsroom veterans, and from the ranks of the older reporters who have an affinity for the beat. They are often, in my experience, among the best writers and raconteurs in any newsroom.

At NPR, crime reporting occurs only when a specific crime reaches such a level of noteworthiness that it is part of the national conversation in offices and coffee shops. As such it is worthy of reporting.

That is clearly what happened with the Wichita story.

Nevertheless, many listeners (and some NPR staffers) expressed their concerns -- not about the story per se, but about the voice of this real-life Hannibal Lecter being put on the air.

I think that the listeners are correct. The story was important because of its impact on the community. NPR's Greg Allen did a good job reporting this impact in previous broadcasts. However, the "Serial Murder 101" approach -- the courtroom confessions of a cold-blooded killer -- was not in line with NPR's usual, thoughtful approach to crime reporting and sounded prurient to me.

The Meaning of a Supreme Court Decision

On another legal matter, NPR's Laura Sullivan reported on Morning Edition (July 1) on whether reporters can be compelled by law to reveal their sources. The Supreme Court announced it would not rule on the case involving two reporters, Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of The New York Times.

Listener Stephen Hardwick wrote:

...Sullivan made a rookie error. She said that "this week, the (U.S. Supreme) Court agreed" that reporters had been abusing the "reporter-source privilege" when the Court refused to hear the appeal from the NYT and Time magazine journalists. That's just wrong. The Court did not agree or disagree with anything this week. It decided not to decide the issue.

I learned this distinction when working on the weekly campus paper of my 1,300-student college. No one at NPR should make that mistake.

But Sullivan pleaded innocent:

By not hearing the case, (the court) is allowing a ruling to stand. Anyway you slice it, that gives the opinion their approval, at least until they reverse it. That opinion is now law… And I can't see how there could be any confusion about whether the court issued an opinion of its own when I said, "it refused to consider an appeal in the case." Mr. Hardwick's position suggests cases are just numbers, as if the court never even looked at the case because they just didn't get to it. The court looks at all the cases before it. They choose which cases they will review. They passed this one up, thereby giving it its approval, even if it's only temporary or by default. So I really don't agree at all.

"Objection," cried Mr. Hardwick:

The Supreme Court regularly refuses to take cases with which it disagrees. Sometimes, there are procedural or factual quirks that make it not "cert worthy." Other times, it's because it wants more lower court opinions. Yet other times, the Court might not think the question is worth its time (even though that might bruise reporters' egos in this case).

Saying that the Court "approved" a decision it refused to hear is pure speculation. Reporting speculation as fact is amateurish. Worse, it conveys the impression that the reporter is giving her opinion, not reporting the facts. It also means listeners can't assume that other details in the story are correct.

I appealed to my learned colleagues. First, to Neal Jackson, NPR's general counsel. He agreed with Mr. Hardwick:

The answer is that the Supreme Court has repeatedly said that a decision not to hear such an appeal (in their language "to deny a petition for a writ of certiorari") is no reflection on the merits of the case. SCOTUS has repeatedly stated that the denial of a grant of a writ of certiorari (the failure to review a decision by a court below) should not be deemed as agreement by it with the outcome below. That is certainly true, as the issues considered by the justices in considering a "petition for cert" are much broader. For example, these include whether four justices (the number of votes needed to grant a cert petition) considers the decision below as important enough to warrant its time, whether the issue is still evolving in the courts below and would better be addressed later, whether there are different decisions on the same issue by different Circuit Courts below, whether the court should step into a legal controversy that is also highly politicized, etc.

Notwithstanding, many legal observers of the SCOTUS believe that at least some indication of the court's leanings can be gleaned from its actions in granting or denying cert petitions. But even they would agree that the denial of cert is not an actual or implied agreement with the holding below.

Nina Totenberg, NPR's legal correspondent, concurred:

It means nothing except that for any one of a dozen or more reasons, the court has decided that the case does not present a good test of unresolved law. The reasons may be factual, they may be that there is no conflict in the lower court, it may be that the court believes the question of law is well settled, it may be that there are procedural problems in the case or that the issue is not yet ripe to hear, or that the court thinks it is not of sufficient importance. Or that the requisite four justices for granting do not think the issue has percolated enough, or that there are peculiar factual problems in the case that make it atypical. You get my drift.