Media Access in High Profile Crimes (Looked at within the Tate-LaBianca murder case)

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Tim Cloud
COMM 364: Media Law & Ethics
13 December 2013

Media Access in High Profile Crimes

(Looked at within the Tate-LaBianca murder case)

During the summer of 1969 a series of murders took place in Los Angeles, many of the victims were famous within the community as well as the country. The victims included Sharon Tate, a famous actress and wife of director Roman Polanski; and Abigail Folger, heiress to the Folgers Coffee fortune. Due to the popularity of the victims and the severe, brutal nature of the murders, local and national media jumped right on this investigation. They began reporting what they knew along with searching for answers and leads. The media had an interesting relationship with police throughout the entire investigation. It was a very love/hate relationship; both sides were just trying to do their jobs, which of course interfere with one another.

In the competitive “business” of journalism, reporters are always trying to gain access to any information they can get. The role of the media, as well as journalism is to keep the public informed (Triebel, 2011). The problem with high profile crimes, especially in this case, is that people want answers right away. Reporters don’t have access to all police investigations and must stay loyal to the law. In Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel’s book “The Elements of Journalism”(1974) he states “Journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens.” In this case the reporters are trying to be loyal to their citizens by providing them with information for their safety.

On the other hand, the role of police is “to protect and to serve” (Triebel, 2011). In high profile crimes, they must keep information confidential in their best interest to protect the citizens. This is where the two role’s conflict with one another. While the media wants to provide information to the public to “keep them safe”, the police wants to keep information confidential from the public to “keep them safe” as well. This is where I pose the question, “How does media coverage influence high profile police investigations?” I am applying this question to the investigations that took place for the Tate-Labianca murders committed by Charles Manson and his “family.” I will be using Vincent Bugliosi’s book “Helter Skelter: the True Story of The Manson Murders” as my primary source. Bugliosi was prosecuting attorney in the case and he discusses what the entire investigation was like first hand.

Laws, Restrictions, and Requirements for Media Access

You would think that there is a black and white explanation for what the media can and cannot access. In 1966 Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act or FOIA. This required that most documents and records of federal agencies be open to public inspection (Zelezny, 2011). Even with the implementation of this act, access to police records is not as simple as you would think. John Zelezny discusses in his book how police records bring up a special problem.

Zelezny (2011) stated that: Among the records most frequently sought by the news media are those kept by law enforcement agencies. The laws pertaining to these records are often complicated and vague, however, with different rules pertaining to different kinds of records. Most often the media desire for information would fall under one of three categories: (1) routine police blotter information about incidents and arrests; (2) information about the progress of an ongoing investigation; and (3) rap sheets (p. 261)

In terms of the Tate-Labianca case, reporters were mainly focused on the 2nd category. Finding out about the ongoing investigation. According to Zelezny (2011) this kind of information is usually more difficult to obtain. The reason that the information is harder to obtain is because within the previously mentioned FOIA there are nine statutory exemptions that allow information to remain classified. The 7th exemption covers “law enforcement investigative information” which therefore allows ongoing investigations to remain classified (Zelezny, 2011). One key point that Zelezny (2011) makes though, is that the exemption simply means the police agency may keep the records confidential but it is not required. The reason that this is important is the police have the ability to release information about their investigation if they would like. This allowed the investigators of the Tate-Labianca case to selectively choose what information went public, to an extent.

Media Access during Tate-Labianca Investigation

Throughout the investigation of the Tate-Labianca murders there seemed to be a lack of media knowledge about official evidence, leads, suspects, etc. This was due to the lack of access the media was given to reports of any sort. Since the police department was not allowing media access to any reports or sites, reporters had to find ways to obtain information.

Within hours of the Tate residence murder being reported, hundreds of news reporters were on the site of the murder as well as hundreds of LAPD officers. With that many people on site it is hard to control what information is leaked if you are the head of police. So much information had been given out at the crime scene that the news reports the next day were extremely detailed. So detailed that the detectives were having difficulty finding polygraph keys for questioning suspects (Bugliosi, 1974). These keys are very important for a police investigation, the police need information that only someone who committed the crime would know, but with media access to all the information, it can make that job very hard.

With the media already causing problems for the police, LAPD decided to put a restriction on media access.

Bugliosi (1974) states: The amount of information unofficially released so bothered LAPD brass that a tight lid was clamped on further disclosures. This didn’t please the reporters; also, lacking hard news, many turned to conjecture and speculation. In the days that followed a monumental amount of false information was published (p. 46)

For the rest of the investigation the only information that the media had access to was from undisclosed leaks, speculations, and official police press conferences (Bugliosi, 1974)

Positive Affects Media Coverage had on Investigation

Due to prior restraint laws, the government can not prohibit the publishing of news stories(Cornell, 2010). So even if the police did not want specific information to be published, if it reached the media, it is out of their control. You would think that this causes nothing but trouble for the investigators, expecially on high profile crimes, but in this case it benefited LAPD and Bugliosi.

As weeks passed the only information that was heard were leaks and specualtion. Some of the information that was being leaked included the fact that the gun used was a .22 and pieces of the grip were found at the crime scene. LAPD was quick to deny all of this information because it was part of the polygraph keys (Bugliosi, 1974, p. 108). One resident of Los Angeles who caught word of this information began to wonder about a gun his son had found in their yard that fit the description. Even though the police denied the information, Mr. Bernard Weiss decided to act (Bugliosi, 1974, p. 108). He ended up turning in one of the main murder weapons that helped lead to the conviction of the criminals.

Even with the dislike the police can show towards the media, they still use them for help. While searching for suspects, LAPD decided to publish information about a pair of prescription eyeglasses found at the scene of the crime. The flyer was printed in magazines such as Optometric Weekly and Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Monthly, this lead to contacts from numerous eye doctors willing to help with the investigation (Bugliosi, 1974, p. 109).

Once the police officially reported who the suspected killers were as well as more information about what exactly happened the night of the murders, news stations began trying to report the story in their own way to generate interest in their news outlet. One station decided to follow the a possible route the suspects traveled the night of the murders. At a location near where the suspects had allegedly ditched their clothes, a cameraman noticed something at the bottom of the cliff and went to check it out. He ended up finding a bag of clothes covered in blood. This discovery by a media member lead to an enourmous gain in evidence for the prosecution (Bugliosi, 1974, p. 267).

Vincent Bugliosi even admitted himself in using the media to his advantage. He says in his book, “I was still reading newspaper and magazine articles to pick up leads”(Bugilosi, 1974, p. 288). When an article was published quoting someone he had yet to interview, he would immediately go and find that person to interview them. By doing so he ended up finding a key witness in Gregg Jakobson, Charles Manson’s agent (Bugliosi, 1974, p. 289).

Negative Affects Media Coverage had on Investigation

Along with the media giving away possible polygraph cues. There were several other things done that made it harder for the police and Bugliosi in their investigation.

At one point in the investigation, a TV commentator “startled his listeners” with the announcement that he would be revealing who had committed the Tate-Labianca murders on Wednesday (Bugliosi, 1974, p. 206). If the news station actually knew the real criminals, and LAPD did not have them in custody yet, it would allow them to disappear. Luckily for Bugliosi and the investigation, all the newspapers, and media sources agreed to sit on the story until the following Monday but would not wait any longer (Bugliosi, 1974, p.206).

A couple weeks later, on December 14th, the LA Times published the headline “Susan Atkins’ Story of 2 Nights of Murder”. It was a three page story on Susan Atkins confession, consisting of her saying things like “Then I proceeded to stab him five or six times in the leg” (, 2010) . This shouldn’t have been that big of a deal because they had all suspects in custody. What the media didn’t consider, and never does, is the jury. With the national notorieity that the crimes received, it would be hard to conduct a fair trial. Bugliosi (1974, p. 262) even said, “…finding twelve jurors who hadn’t read or heard of the account…would be a difficult task”. This is a common problem with high-profile criminal investigations because you must assure the media’s First Amendment right to freedom of the press while protecting the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trail (Morris, n.d.). The release of this story created big problems for the investigation and prosecution. Once they found twelve jurors they would still have to prove that Manson was given a fair trial.

Throughout the entire investigation there was false information being published every week. The false information being published did not have that much of a negative affect on the investigation because they knew they were false. The only problem with the false information for the most part was that it put pressure on LAPD to crack the case. Along with the fact that Bugliosi used articles to gain leads, so he had to sift through the true and false ones(Bugliosi, 1974).


Media Coverage can be a very dicey subject when you are looking at high profile crimes with minimal media access. From the morning that the murder was discovered at Cielo Drive, media coverage was everywhere. Anything that could be found, whether true or false, was the newest headline. In terms of this case, it is hard for media to be given access to information when there is no progress in the police investigation. That ended up becoming one of the biggest problems for media coverage.

In conclusion, with laws on media access restricting what information the media can obtain, the media is always going to try and dig up what they aren’t being told. This causes the media to investigate themselves and report information not given by police officials. No matter whether the information is true or false, the media coverage will end up interfering with police investigations somehow. In both good ways and bad ways.


Bugliosi, V., & Gentry, C. (1974). Helter skelter: the true story of the Manson murders ([1st ed.). New York: Norton. (n.d.). Charles Manson, Sharon Tate, The Family, Labianca, Murders,. Charles Manson Family and Sharon TateLabianca Murders Archive. Retrieved December 9, 2013, from

Cornell. (2010, August 19). Prior Restraint. LII. Retrieved December 9, 2013, from

Kovach, B., & Rosenstiel, T. (2003). The elements of journalism. London: Atlantic Books :.


Triebel, M. (2011, July 17). The Relationship Between the Police & the Media | eHow. eHow. Retrieved December 8, 2013, from

Zelezny, J. D. (2011). Communications law: liberties, restraints, and the modern media (6 ed.). Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Pub. Co..

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