The media as an investigative resource: reflections from English cold-case units

Date24 April 2020
Publication Date24 April 2020
AuthorKirsty Bennett
SubjectHealth & social care,Criminology & forensic psychology,Criminal psychology,Sociology,Sociology of crime & law,Deviant behaviour,Public policy & environmental management,Policing,Criminal justice
The media as an investigative resource:
reections from English cold-case units
Kirsty Bennett
Purpose The use of the media in live cases has been explored in terms of its use and value to an
investigation. However, it is unclear as to whether engaging with the media in cold-case investigations
results in a positive or negative reception, and what impact this can have on a case’s possibility for
progression. Because of the passage of time and a lack of, or a failed, prosecution means that the
approachto media use needs to be different. The purpose of this paper is to explore how the media could
be used as an investigativeresource for cold cases.
Design/methodology/approach This study is a result of a 7-month observationperiod with a 2-force
collaborative cold-case team in England, and supplemented with interviews with 12 experienced cold-
case detectives. Using inductive thematic analysis, the themes identified allow an exploration of
detectives’use of the media and the effect that this hason progressing cases. Further, there isdiscussion
as to whetherthe media’s involvement is positive or negative.
Findings The overarching theme is that when using the media, cold-case detectives are met with a
positive reception and interest. The media can be used to obtain information, particularly in caseswith
minimal information, and it is important to use murder-anniversaries to obtain help from the public.
However, this needs to be a carefully managed strategy as the media coverage can be negative,
includinginaccurate or inappropriate reportingwhich can be of detriment to the investigation.
Originality/value To the best of the author’s knowledge,this is the first paper to explore how cold-case
detectives have used the media to progress cases, and the findings demonstratethat when the public
are encouraged to come forwardwith information, there is a better chance of case progression. Further
researchis required to explore how all cold casescan receive appropriate coverage.
Keywords Policing, Media, Cold cases, Criminal investigations, Homicides, Unsolved homicides
Paper type Research paper
The act of homicide, and their subsequent investigations, are often a high-profile and
heavily publicised event (Simon, 1999). In England and Wales, police forces are aware of
this interest but are cognizant of the factthat they must maintain a control over the coverage
(Feist, 1999). When the various media platforms (local and national newspapers and
television news, the internet and socialmedia) cover a homicide event, the public are given
the opportunity to follow a case through to its eventual resolution, which is typically the
prosecution of the offender(s). Yet, not all cases result in the identification, arrest or
prosecution of the offender(s). Such cases are referred to as “cold cases”, which has
become common parlance across England and Wales and the USA (Allsop,2013, 2018;
Innes and Clarke, 2009;Walton,2006, 2013). Once a homicide is reported to the police it is
subject to a thorough investigation, with all investigative leads identified and pursued, with
the intent of securing a resolution (Allsop, 2013;Gaylor, 2002;Innes and Clarke, 2009;
Smythe, 2009;Turner and Kosa, 2003;Walton,2006, 2013). In England and Wales, all
homicides are subject to periodicreviews while the case is active, and these reviews occur
at 7th-, 28th- and 56th-days. The purposeof the reviews is to ensure best practice has been
followed, all lines of inquiry have been pursued and conducted appropriately, and there
Kirsty Bennett is based at
the Department of Human
and Health Sciences,
University of Huddersfield,
Huddersfield, UK.
Received 17 March 2020
Revised 30 March 2020
Accepted 30 March 2020
DOI 10.1108/JCP-02-2020-0009 VOL. 10 NO. 2 2020, pp. 145-166, ©Emerald Publishing Limited, ISSN 2009-3829 jJOURNAL OF CRIMINAL PSYCHOLOGY jPAGE 145
have been no missed opportunities (Nicol et al.,2003). However, once two years have
passed since the homicide occurred, with no resolution, the case undergoes a final, or
“closing review”, accompanied by a closing report (Association of Chief Police Officers
[ACPO] [1], 2012; Allsop, 2013;Gaylor, 2002). In this review, the senior investigating officer
(SIO) assigned to the case determines that there is no possible way, at this time, that the
case can be progressed, without obtainingnew information, which is typically new evidence
or witnesses (Association of ChiefPolice Officers [ACPO], 2012;Allsop, 2013;Gaylor, 2002;
Innes and Clarke, 2009). The case is then passed to the responsibility of the cold-case
Cold-case homicides pose a unique challenge for investigations and are inherently difficult
because of the passage of time, possible loss of forensic exhibits and a lack of resources
available to investigative them (Allsop, 2018;Walton, 2006). Further, Allsop (2013)
highlights how austerity measures across England and Wales are affecting the amount of
resources that can be assigned to cold cases. This is still a concern today with the rising
crime rates and declining officer numbers across the country (Home Office, 2019).
Consequentially, police forces in both England and Wales and the USA, have used
solvability, or prioritisation, matrices to prioritise cases based on their likelihood of eventual
resolution (Davis et al.,2012;Lloyd-Evans and Bethall, 2009;Turner and Kosa, 2003). The
highest scoring cases are those with forensic evidence that could be advanced through
new techniques, definitive proof of murder, the body’s recovery and cooperating witnesses
(Lloyd-Evans and Bethall, 2009;Turnerand Kosa, 2003).
The authors (Lloyd-Evans and Bethall, 2009;Turner and Kosa, 2003) that have explored
solvability matrices have focused on specific forces and so it is unclear if all forces in
England and Wales, and the USA, use such systems for their cold cases. Nevertheless, the
importance of forensic evidence has been associated with the investigations of cold cases
and attributed to their successes: it has become the focal point of both academic inquiry
and cold-case investigator’s actions (Association of Chief Police Officers [ACPO], 2012;
Allsop, 2018;Chapman et al.,2019). Notable successes in the use of forensic evidence for
solving cold cases, such as Collette Aram’s murder in England (Allsop, 2018) and the
possible identification of the Golden State Killer in the USA after 40 years (Lussenhop,
2018), support the use of this approach. However, not all cases may benefit from this
investigative strategy, as they do not have forensic evidence available to test or the exhibits
have since been lost. Thus, this study focuses on trying to get witnesses, or those with
information, to come forward to assist the investigation in the hope of achieving some
progress. Allsop (2018) reports that police forces in England and Wales are encouraged to
“advertise” their successes of resolving a cold case through the media. This presents the
opportunity for forces to bring other cases to the forefront of the public’s mind that these
cases may also need assistance. To reach the widest audience, the use of the various
media platforms can be beneficial, but this does not necessarily come without its
disadvantages. These issues are discussed alongside the policemedia relationship when
covering a homicide event, and the importance of witnesses. The media platforms of focus
are local newspapers and social media.
The journalist’s motto of “if it bleeds, it leads” (Schildkraut and Donnelly, 2012) explains the
prominent interest in covering live homicides. Gilliam and Iyengar (2000) report that
homicides are the most likely offence types to be covered in the media. Research from the
USA focuses on which homicide cases receive coverage, with a focus on the victim’s
demographics (i.e. age, race and gender) and the circumstances of the killing (i.e. stranger
or sexually motivated homicides) (Chermak, 1998;Gruenewald et al.,2009;Johnstone
et al.,1994
;Lundman, 2003;Peelo et al., 2004;Schildkraut and Donnelly, 2012). However,
Soothill et al. (2002) notes that the academic inquiry into the media’s coverage of homicide

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