Relations between media and law enforcement have changed since 1959
Tony Jewell was sitting in church one Sunday morning in November 1959 when he got a call from KIUL Radio Station, where he worked.
He was to cover a tragedy reported at the Clutter farm in Holcomb.
“I didn’t know what happened,” said Jewell, a longtime Garden City, Kan., resident.
But when he arrived at River Valley Farm, he found the driveway blocked and started at a run up the lane to the house. He was the first reporter to arrive, and he met Finney County Sheriff Earl Robinson and Under Sheriff Wendle Meier, who told him about the murders of Herb, Bonnie, Nancy and Kenyon Clutter.
Before the bodies were even removed, the law enforcement officials let Jewell enter the house and walk room to room as they explained about the crimes and where each person was killed.
“It was unbelievable — a gruesome sight,” he said. “I spent an hour or more at the Clutter home that morning.
Then it was my duty to hustle back to the station and deliver the information to listeners.”
Jewell was able to walk around a quadruple murder scene because law enforcement officials trusted him enough to share what they knew. That kind of relationship between police and the media might seem odd today, as trust has waned on both sides. Law enforcement officers sometimes don’t have faith that the media won’t disseminate information that would hurt their cases, and reporters today don’t get the same kind of access to crimes scenes and other information they once did.
The trust used to extend both ways. For example, officers told Jewell many clues, such as that a bloody footprint had been found in the basement and that Kenyon Clutter’s radio was missing, but Jewell didn’t share that information with listeners so as not to jeopardize authorities’ ability to solve the case.
“I believed in it (law enforcement’s work) and I still do,” Jewell said.
At the time of the Clutter murders, Holcomb had a population of 270 people and police were familiar with the reporters who covered them, knew their families, saw them at church and dined with them at local restaurants.
Today those relationships are not as strong. In some cases that can be traced to population growth. Not only does that often bring a natural increase in the volume of work for law enforcement but it also means that they don’t often interact with reporters in social settings as they once might have. In other cases, tighter deadlines for reporters and more work for them meant they, too, had less time to interact with officers. Still in other cases it depended on the personalities and policies of those in charge.
Dolores Hope, who wrote for the Garden City Telegram, said the amount of information reporters received from law enforcement depended on who the police chief or sheriff was and how they worked on cases.
Most agencies establish guidelines for working with media, so the relationship between the media and law enforcement is different throughout the country.
For example, Debbie Collins, public information coordinator for the Nebraska State Patrol, said her agency’s officers get a two-hour course at the academy that covers how officers should release information and what the goals of releasing information to the public are. Supervisors receive an additional class. Collins said the goal is to get the best and most correct information to the media, but officers must assess the impact of divulging that information, exactly what type of information to release and how to establish a good working relationship with reporters.
Unlike Jewell’s experience in the Clutter case, reporters today are rarely given clues about certain cases because doing so could interfere with investigations, she said. And they are never allowed to walk around a crime scene before criminologists have gathered evidence because the technology is so sophisticated, introducing a reporter’s clothing fibers or dirt from their shoes could contaminate evidence.
But still, Collins said, the relationship on both sides depends on the history between the media and the police and the people involved.
“It usually depended on the circumstances,” she said. “Some agencies have a better rapport with the media than others.”
John Bender, a media law and journalism professor at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said a state’s bar-press guidelines establish how and what journalists can report. At the time of the Clutter murders in 1959, such guidelines hadn’t been set up.
Bender said President John F. Kennedy Jr.’s assassination in 1963 changed the way law enforcement and the judicial system viewed the media. The media were granted complete coverage of the assassination and its aftermath — printing and airing the suspected killer’s name and covering a news conference during which police questioned him.
Before the assassination, Bender said, the Dallas Police Department had been extremely open with the media, much like the relationship between law enforcement and reporters in the Clutter case. But when Dallas newspapers printed information about Lee Harvey Oswald, it created chaos as people swarmed the criminal court building for a news conference. One man — Jack Ruby — slipped through. He wanted to kill Oswald, and he later did.
Afterward the media received harsh criticism from law enforcement officials and the judicial system for printing Oswald’s name and covering the events so extensively. The chaotic scene created by the press contributed to Oswald’s death, Bender said, and it was later determined that even if Oswald had lived, it would have been hard for him to receive a fair trial.
Bender said the criticism led to the establishment of bar-press guidelines, and judges became more concerned about protecting the rights of the accused. In turn, law enforcement officials became more concerned with what information was made public.
But the media nationwide didn’t change uniformly. Many reporters still were granted access to information, and many media organizations still printed information on criminal cases and the accused.
But the Dallas case and others really shifted the balance, Bender said. “By the 1980s it was hard for a reporter to get that kind of access anymore.”
Ed Tully, a retired FBI Academy instructor and administrator and chief of the Education and Communication Arts Unit, said the decline in the media’s access to inside information coincided with a trend into investigative reporting in the 1970s and ’80s.
“Following Watergate and the Pulitzer Prizes for the reporters of the Washington Post, many young reporters found that investigating violations of public trust were worthy news stories which could bring fame and possible fortune,” Tully said in an e-mail interview.
“For better, or worse, this new attitude on the part of the press had the predictable reaction of public officials trying to hide bad events from public view, and the press was seen as the enemy.”
Tully, who developed a Media Relations Training Program in the 1980s — the model is still being used by larger law enforcement agencies today — said the relationship between law enforcement and media in the Clutter case and during that time “was this way because the reporter had to follow the directions of the police or else he would have been frozen out by the police for further information, thus ending his career as a police reporter.”
“The police definitely had the upper hand in the relationship,” said Tully, who also worked as a special agent of the FBI for the first part of his career. “Most police reporters were completely dependent on the police for information; should one of them have violated this unspoken relationship by divulging information or writing critical stories about the police, the consequences were always the same: ‘No longer welcome.'”
Southwestern Kansas has not been immune to the changes between the media and law enforcement. The kind of access to the crime scene and information Jewell had no longer exists even in Garden City. Both sides, however, contend the relationship is still good.
Gwen Tietgen, a reporter for the Telegram, said the local police department has a public information officer, whose job is to work with and respond to the media. The local police department, she said, also has daily briefings, specifically designed for the media to acquire information about the night’s happenings and other cases. The sheriff’s office, too, she said provides the media with information sheets on cases and briefings.
“When we talk to the sheriff he tells us what he thinks we will want to know about,” she said.
She doesn’t see the same level of trust as existed between Jewell and police in 1959.
“Now everyone is for themselves,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, but we’re not any different here than anywhere else.”
James Hawkins, Garden City police chief for nine years, said although it’s unlawful to reveal certain details to the media, to the dismay of some hesitant law enforcement officers, some things have to be revealed.
“But the chances are that if a media person got a scoop from law enforcement they would run with it because they want the headline,” Hawkins said.
Still, he agrees with Tietgen that the relationship is generally close, and says the department has worked to improve it.
“We’ve always had a policy that deals with media,” he said, “but we need to set parameters that both of us can live with.”
Finny County Sheriff Kevin Bascue said he had special training at the FBI National Academy in Virginia that covered the relationship between media and law enforcement, and he tries to use the training in his office.
“In our office, we try to embrace media and get to know them on a friendly basis,” he said. “We both realize we both have jobs to do.”
Bascue said the relationship suffers a little because reporters change positions or jobs so frequently there’s no time to get acquainted. But in many cases the old rules still apply; it goes back to individual relationships and trust building.
“I share more than I normally would when I get to know a reporter,” he said.
Tully agrees that the relationship is getting better and says more positive stories about the police are prevalent today than in the past, but he still thinks a rift exists.
“The average officer and reporter are getting along fairly well,” he said. “They still hate each other, though. But that is the nature of press throughout our society.”