Serial Murder and Media Circuses

By Hume, Janice | Journalism History, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Serial Murder and Media Circuses


Hume, Janice, Journalism History


Gibson, Dirk C. Serial Murder and Media Circuses. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2006. 233 pp. $39.95.

Serial killers attract media attention, which, for better or worse, influences public reaction to the slayings, the police investigations, and perhaps even the murderers. This is the premise of Dirk Gibson's Serial Murder and Media Circuses, which describes in detail twelve notorious cases, from Henri Landru, the "French Bluebeard" who in 1914 began marrying and murdering women for their money, to Wesdey Allan Dodd, who was hanged in 1993 for molesting and killing children.

Gibson organizes his book one case at a time, describing the criminals, crimes, victims, investigations, community reactions, and the role of communication, including rhetoric, journalism, and public relations, in all aspects of these events. The book is clearly written and efficiently organized so that anyone interested just in public relations techniques, for example, can find that information quickly. Taken together, his case studies point to the troubling downside of mass press coverage of these horrific crimes. "Media circuses," he argues, have hindered investigations, harmed victims families, and created panic.

Gibson concludes by making a number of public policy recommendations, including a call for more research into press values, attitudes and beliefs, guidelines for responding to communication from killers, and training for law enforcement about the needs and rights of journalists. "On balance it must be conceded that media involvement in serial murder cases has generally been detrimental to the public and investigative good," he writes.

Unfortunately, Gibson's book is based entirely on secondary sources, which detracts from its credibility. The author acknowledges reservations about his choice of method but says this choice does not present a serious problem. Yet over and over again, he simply selects bits of media criticism from books, Internet sites, or television programs, or lists descriptions of process and draws conclusions that leave the reader wanting more depth in the research and the analysis. He also makes sweeping statements about negative media "effects" without evidence from any kind of effects studies. For example, in the Landru case, he cites as negatives the creation of celebrities and "media zones" (places where throngs of journalists gathered to cover the story) without telling how or why they were negative. …

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