The Media and BTK


The U.S. media has focused its much of its attention lately on two news stories, the Michael Jackson trial and the arrest of a suspect in the BTK serial killer case.  Michael Jackson is obviously a big story because of his notoriety as the "King of Pop" and the bizarre nature of his case.  I have tried not to follow the trial too closely, but it’s hard to avoid trail coverage threaded among news I want to watch.  The BTK case, on the other hand, is a bit of an anomaly in that it does not involve a celebrity or a recent murder, yet the U.S. media has decided to make it a major news story.  The BTK killer is responsible for murdering 10 victims in the Wichita, Kansas area between 1974 and 1991.  The case grew cold until the BTK killer reemerged last year to send electronic communications to local media and police, one of which ended up tipping police to a suspect arrested on February 25th.   

There have been many sensational serial killer cases, but the arrest of a suspect in the BTK case has generated more media attention than any other serial killer case in recent years.  I offer a couple of recent serial killer cases as examples.  Gary Ridgeway, the infamous Green River Killer, was arrested and plead guilty to the murder of 48 women in November 2003.  The Green River Killer case is the worst serial killer case in U.S. history.  I followed this case closely because most of the Green River Killer’s victims were from the Seattle area, and I lived in Seattle at the time of the trial.  I did not live in the Seattle area at the time of the murders, but the Green River Killer haunted the psyche of most Seattleites until Ridgeway was finally apprehended three years ago.  Robert Lee Yates, another infamous serial killer from nearby Spokane, Washington was sentenced in 2000 for killing 10 women.  His case received little national media attention.

The BTK case, while gruesome in its own right, seems to be picking up much more media attention than did the Green River Killer or the Spokane killer cases.  Why?  I assume that its because of three reasons, perhaps more:

  1. The BTK case happened in the heartland of America (Kansas), making it a story that interests Americans nationwide.  It happened in a relatively peaceful, safe mid-sized city, Wichita.  It sends the message that it can happen anywhere, not just in large urban areas such as Seattle.
  2. The BTK killer taunted the media and authorities by putting out periodic communications to let them know he was monitoring them.  His unique method of communication–by phone or by computer disk, his "calling card," made him especially intriguing to the media.
  3. The media is looking for another big "people" story to generate public interest.  Now that Scott Peterson has been convicted, Kobe Bryant may settle out of court, Elizabeth Strange is back home with her parents, and Martha Stewart is out of jail, the media needs another "human interest" story.  Americans are fascinated by bizarre cases, especially serial killer cases and cases that affect families.  This case offers a "human side" in that the suspect is a family man and well regarded in his community.

What’s lost in all this media interest over BTK are the victims.  It is they who should receive media attention, not the serial killer.  I was struck by this fact when I watched Gary Ridgeway on television pled guilty in court to 48 murders.  As the clerk read off the names of the victims and Ridgeway pled guilty to each murder, I realized how lost the victims are in the proceedings of serial killer case.  The victims became lost in a sea of names.  The BTK news has so far focused primarily on the suspect and on family and friends who were unaware of his alleged crime.  I have yet to see much about the victims. 

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