Serial Killers and the Effects of the Media Upon the Investigation

Purdue University Global


When thinking of serial killers, one might immediately flash back to the media frenzies surrounding the capture and subsequent trials of such killers as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Gary Ridgeway, Richard Ramirez or even Dennis Rader. Each of these individuals were suspected of, and later convicted of, multiple murders to their names: However, it wasn’t the victims that became sensationalized, but the killers themselves. Each serial killer, such as those listed above, became an almost over-night sensation, with the media following every minute of the capture, trial and incarceration.

The trials of such killers as Ramirez and Bundy became a media circus. These individuals were both reviled for their actions, but there were also those who either decided to be ‘groupies’ of these men or women, or that they admired them and their actions and wanted to be like them. In the case of Ramirez, it is a fact that he married one of his ‘groupies’ in 1996, remaining married until his death in 2016 . It is such actions and the sensationalism that one thinks of when one thinks of serial killers.

Serial murder is not an American issue, solely: It is a global phenomenon. There are differences in which serial murder is viewed globally including; How serial murder is defined by that culture, the influences on serial murder can differ, and serial murder profiles differ between the United States and other countries. Each culture and/or country has influences on serial murders and how they are viewed, with the United States differing from other countries in general .

There are several tools in which law enforcement can utilize to investigate cases of serial murder. One of the tools is psychological profiling via the FBI. Another tool that can be utilized is collecting witness statements or searching for silent witnesses, i.e. security cameras. The media can also be used as a tool for investigators, when utilized properly and the spirit of cooperation between the media and law enforcement exists. Evidence collection and analyzation from the victim and the crime scene is another great tool, which can narrow down the suspect pool, especially if DNA is recovered. Another tool which is very helpful for investigators is that of crime linkage, that is to say that investigators can analyze crime scenes and details of the crime in order to establish any existing links between the crimes, thus identifying crimes to one (or more, in the case of murders committed by more than one person) offender .

One of the most notable effects of media portrayals of mass killings and/or serial murders is that they are sensationalized and almost glorified. News coverage of these crimes goes on continually, either highlighting that investigations have not found and/or caught a suspect, or that they go on for the duration of the trial and/or sentencing of the suspect, sometimes lasting even longer than that. Due to the coverage of such crimes, which can last for years, it has been noted that there is the possibility of other individuals who want to make their own ‘mark’ among society, reaching for their five minutes of fame. There is also the possibility that the coverage can encourage copycat killers, thus making it harder for investigators to separate the copycat killers crimes from those of the original killer .

When it has been proven that multiple murders over a period of time has been linked to one individual, or even a partnership of individuals, that is when the media frenzy begins. This is the period in which media speculations start, picking apart the investigation, stating possible theories behind the motivations of the killer(s), speculations of the type of individual(s) behind the killings, and even hiring panels of individuals who are or claim to be experts to speculate on the killer(s) and the state of the investigations .

Once such speculations and theories become viewable to the public, this can cause significant problems to both law enforcement agencies and society in general. One such problem that can come to exist is that the media can whip the public into a frenzy, causing mass panic within the area(s) that the serial killer operates in. Another possible product of the media detailing crimes and crime scenes is that they can release details in which law enforcement does not wish known, which can jeopardize the investigation in the fact that the details of the case become available for public consumption, closing down an avenue for which law enforcement could ask for details from possible suspects that was not supposed to be known by any but the perpetrator .

Media coverage of serial killers also can have the after effect of lowering the confidence of society for the law enforcement agencies working the case(s) of actually capturing the perpetrator. The lack of confidence in the law enforcement agencies could result in individuals who are potential witnesses to actively avoid talking with law enforcement officials and the public placing too much pressure on the law enforcement agencies involved, which can possibly lead to a reduction in police productivity due to the pressure. There is also the possibility that the media coverage, and possible lack of notable progress in the investigation, which can lead to public scorn and criticism: This is another example of an effect which can hamper investigations due to public opinions, criticisms, and pressure upon the law enforcement agencies to produce results. Another negative possibility involved in the media speculations of an active serial killer case is that it can taint public opinions, which could affect possible jury selections due to preconceived perceptions of the case .

Another effect that can be caused by media coverage, most especially that made by news media employing the usage of so-called experts, is that it can affect the behaviors of the killer. The killer can become incensed by the coverage and rhetoric that is put forth by the media, leading the suspect to either alter their behaviors, thus trying to throw law enforcement officials ‘off the scent’, or that they can react violently, attacking and/or killing other individuals due to the offense given them by the media. There also lies the possibility that the killer can so alter their behaviors, i.e. victim pools, modus operandi, geographical locations, in order to confuse investigators and the media, thus prolonging the investigation and allowing for the killer to operate longer .

The media can help to highlight and inform the public of potential dangers to society in general, which can allow for individuals to be hyper-aware of their surroundings and encourage safety precautions. When media outlets are utilized effectively, this can be a great help to both the public, as well as to law enforcement agencies, as this can encourage cooperation between law enforcement and society, allowing for information sharing and encouraging possible witnesses to come forward to police .

It is when there is a lack of cooperation between the media and law enforcement, which allows for the media to publish possible false information, inflammatory articles and/or news reports, and has media forums of ‘experts’ speculating and theorizing about the investigation and the perpetrator, all of which can jeopardize the investigation .