Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Joubert, Nebraska Boy Snatcher

The Journalists and the Murderers

Joubert's story is told by Mark Pettit, a journalist who was keen to get the details.  Over a period of two years, he followed the story and wrote to Joubert's public defender and to Joubert to get an exclusive, which he describes in A Need to Kill.  Clearly, he got the story, although Joubert was dubious and a bit anxious about how an interview might affect his chances of getting a new trial.

Pettit's ambivalence over getting such a story, teetering between horror over what the man had done, sympathy for those who had lost children to a monster, and an attempt to be objective about his interview subject, is mirrored by others in similar positions.

Most famous is the tale, told by Janet Malcolm in The Journalist and the Murderer, about author Joe McGinness and convicted Green Beret Killer, Jeffrey MacDonald.   McGinness was being sued for libel by MacDonald, who'd invited him onto his team and given him access to his entire story in the belief that McGinness was going to show the world that he was innocent.  He learned too late that McGinness believed that he was guilty, and MacDonald felt that McGinness had duped him so he could get an insider's scoop on the case for his bestselling book.  About that case, Malcolm writes that the journalist is often deceptive in the interests of the reader, which may then sacrifice the interests of the subject. 

"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on," she wrote, "knows that what he does is morally indefensible."  They act toward the subject as if they intend to be sympathetic, but then write something that may be in complete opposition to that appearance.  Often, the subject suffers for it once the piece is in print.  And while that is the journalist's right in the interests of truth and objectivity, Malcolm writes, they must not engage in "gratuitous two-facedness," which she believed McGinness did.  The morality of journalism on subjects like murder is almost always a tightrope act, and care must be taken to develop the story with as much integrity as possible.  Objectivity is one thing, but outright deception for one's own purposes is another.  To some extent, every journalist who approaches a killer to attempt to tell his story must weigh these factors.

Perhaps the only journalist who did not have to consider both sides was Sandy Fawkes, who wrote Killing Time about her encounter with serial killer Paul John Knowles.  She did not know he was a killer when she met him, although he assured her that a book about him would make her career.  Once he was captured, she did write his story (recently reprinted), and because she'd never promised him anything, went ahead and told his story the way she wanted, including the fact that he was a poor conquest in bed.

But some journalists are pulled in without having made the choice, or after they've become less certain they want to write the story.


We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'