Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Post-Mortem on the Dahmer Trial Coverage

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Post-Mortem on the Dahmer Trial Coverage

Article excerpt

After a Milwaukee jury had ruled Jeffery Dahmer legally sane, jurors met with psychiatrists for counseling about dealing with the grisly details they had heard of Dahmer's horrifying killing and torture spree.

Reporters and editors responsible for Dahmer trial news coverage, however, had to wrestle with the journalistic implications of those gruesome details day by day during the nearly monthlong trial.

Journalists were confronted with some bizarre news judgment questions.

Do you mention that he cooked and ate the bicep of a corpse? Or that he had sex with corpses, or masturbated over dead bodies? Or that he drilled holes in the heads of his grugged victims?

News organizations showed a wide range of responses.

Some sanitized the shocking gore, seeking to convey the essence of Dahmer's deed without giving each gruesome detail.

Others, however, held nothing back, arguing the public appreciates the bizarreness of the case, and needed specifics to evaluate Dahmer's mind.

Both viewpoints were reflected in the morning Milwaukee Sentinel and evening Milwaukee Journal, both owned by Journal Communications Inc.

"A lot of people are beyond being shocked," said Milwaukee Sentinel editor Keith Spore.

During the trial, the Sentinel devoted two full pages to Dahmer's confession, and reported virtually all details as they emerged in testimony.

On the other hand, the Journal from the start told readers its coverage would err on the side of sensitivity, said deputy managing editor Howard Fibich.

"There appears to be public indifference to this thing," Fibich said. "A lot of things that are so exceedingly distasteful to normal people surfaced during the pretrial period.

"To some extent, it is old hat now," he said during the trial.

Nevertheless, the Milwaukee county executive, David Schulz, complained in a letter to eight Milwaukee news organizations that they had gone too far in reporting the trial.

Milwaukee media, Schulz said, had served up a "poisonous Dahmer cocktail" that could cause "collective community psychic suicide."

Repeated reports on Dahmer's deviant behavior expressed "a clear lack of respect bordering on contempt for the values of family, home, and human conduct."

Indeed, one Milwaukee radio station, WOKY-AM, said during the trial that it would not expose listeners to what it said was the "pure pornography" of certain trial testimony. …

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