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Zodiac Killer identification proof that breaking news cannot jump the gun

Zodiac Killer identification proof that breaking news cannot jump the gun

Zodiac Killer identification proof that breaking news cannot jump the gun
October 21
12:00 2021

The “Zodiac Killer” became morbid stuff of legend akin to a real-life boogeyman after terrorizing citizens of the San Francisco area in the late 60s. He taunted police with cryptic letters which have not all been deciphered and were able to effortlessly evade police. That was until Oct. 6, when news networks across the nation said the “Zodiac” had been positively identified as Gary Francis Poste, who died in 2018. 

The Case Breakers, a team comprised of more than 40 former law enforcement investigators, journalists and military intelligence officers, identified Poste as the killer. The team said pictures of Poste featured long scars on his forehead, a distinctive feature of the killer. Another form of evidence found to pinpoint Poste was a heel print from a military-style boot that matched the same style and size found at the crime scenes.

Less than 24 hours after Poste was announced to be the “Zodiac,” the FBI and San Francisco police denied the new allegations. Though Poste was suspected of the death of a teenage girl, the case was never linked to the “Zodiac,” occurring hundreds of miles away from the “Zodiac”’s crime scenes. The FBI stated that the last breakthrough in the case came last year when independent codebreakers cracked a message sent to the San Francisco Chronicle during the time of the killing spree. The case remains open, according to a statement the FBI made to CNN.

The “unmasking” of the “Zodiac Killer” came at a major cost. While articles from news networks such as Fox and CNN received large traffic across social media, the hype died as fast as it came. Oct. 6 should be seen as an important day for journalism. It was the day the media proved the public right to be skeptical of breaking news. We sacrificed public trust in favor of sensationalism. 

While the Case Breakers is a team made up of credible professionals, they are still an unofficial task force. It was a bit reckless to accept information from them and deem it credible enough to label it a fact. Though they claimed they had evidence of Poste being the killer, the scars on his forehead baring some likeliness to the sketch of the killer is circumstantial evidence at best. 

The allegation towards Poste is telling about the current state of journalism. The media and its consumers have a love-hate relationship. Readers rely on up-to-date and accurate information from whatever news platform they go on. Digital media is fast-paced and breaking news journalists wait on the edge of their seats to deliver the next big story. 

It’s a grueling and thankless job where time is not a privilege and the gap to make mistakes is wide. On the other side, society has been conditioned to receive immediate results within a few taps on a screen. Information is more accessible now than at any other point in human history. The demand for fast and accurate journalism is incredibly high, especially when there is an increase in paywalls. Readers are entitled to get what they pay for. 

With the FBI and the San Francisco Police Department coming in to debunk news reports from major networks in less than a week, it chips away from the credibility that journalism worked so hard to establish. If these allegations are proven false, journalism has violated two of the four pillars of ethics

Journalists must seek the truth and report it. They must present the correct information and time is not an excuse for error. Journalists have to minimize harm. Though Poste is a suspect in the death of a teenage girl, the FBI has dismissed evidence the Case Breakers said they had against him. If Poste is not guilty of being the “Zodiac Killer,” his family can sue for libel since the press made false accusations against an innocent man. 

Though news reports have updated their stories to include current information on the case, the news should not be quick to pull the trigger on a story without proven evidence. The press will be held accountable by readers for the spread of false information. Digital media is a double-edged sword. There are so many stories to tell but we cannot abandon ethical principles and risk sacrificing the trust of readers in exchange for writing the next big thing.

Featured Illustration by J. Robynn Aviles

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Adrian Maldonado

Adrian Maldonado

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