Police accuse Bryan Kohberger of killing four in Idaho, while news outlets allow random acquaintances to accuse him of being weird and mean

(EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re still on break for a few weeks, but for those of you who go back early and are looking for a timely topic in a reporting class, this seemed to have some potential.  We’ll return to the regular posting schedule in late January. — VFF)

In the race to fill in some important personal details about the man accused of killing four college students in Idaho, a few news outlets seem willing to let almost anyone step up to the microphone and call Bryan Kohberger an asshat:

Consider what ABC, a national media outlet, just did:

  • It relied on a first-name-only source, who was apparently interviewed over the phone, to provide “new details” about this guy.
  • It relied on “Thomas,” a former childhood friend, to provide key insights on a guy who is now 28 years old.
  • It then gave us the major insight that Kohberger was “mean” as a kid and apparently put “Thomas” into a headlock at some point.

The New York Times, which at least gave Thomas a last name, did similar digging into his life and strung together a series of random anecdotes that, when placed in the context of a guy accused of quadruple homicide, sound downright damning:

Jack Baylis, who became friends with Mr. Kohberger in eighth grade, said Mr. Kohberger had long been fascinated with why people acted the way they did and had seemed to enjoy his job as a security guard for the Pleasant Valley School District, where he worked for several years until 2021.

The last time Mr. Baylis saw Mr. Kohberger was in 2021, when they shot airsoft guns together in the Poconos. At the time, Mr. Baylis said, Mr. Kohberger drove a white Hyundai Elantra, the same model of car that the police in Moscow said had been spotted near the Idaho victims’ home on the night of the attacks.

Hmmm… the “he liked being a security guard and did gun stuff” accusation… where have we seen this kind of reporting before… Oh yeah! Now I remember!

Also, Hyundai sold more than 650,000 Elantras of the 2011-13 model that Kohberger drove, and a goodly number of them were probably white…

The Times then set about painting a picture of him through facts that essentially say, “Here’s some random crap we found. Feel free to make it feel as chilling as you want…”

At Washington State, Mr. Kohberger was continuing with his studies, his classmates said. B.K. Norton, who was in the same graduate program as Mr. Kohberger, said his quiet, intense demeanor had made some classmates uncomfortable.

That’s right… he was quiet… You have to watch out for the quiet ones… Especially the quiet ones that get loud and argue…

The fellow student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared that speaking publicly could jeopardize his safety, described Mr. Kohberger as the black sheep of the class, often taking contrarian viewpoints and sometimes getting into arguments with his peers, particularly women.

The classmate recalled one instance in which Mr. Kohberger began explaining a somewhat elementary criminology concept to a fellow doctoral student, who then accused him of “mansplaining.” A heated back-and-forth ensued and the doctoral student eventually stormed out of the classroom, he said.

Look, I love the people I went through the doctoral program with at Mizzou and still stay in touch with many of them more than 20 years later. That said, there were more than a few occasions in which we were spending all day, everyday with each other and it got to a point where I’m sure at least one or more of us felt like throwing a chair at one or more of the rest of us.

I probably even “mansplained” something, long before we had a term for that and just referred it as “being a dink.”

That said, students also had some key insights regarding Kohberger:

Mr. Kohberger was also a teaching assistant in a criminal law class during the fall semester, said Hayden Stinchfield, 20, one of the students in that class. He said that Mr. Kohberger often cast his eyes down while addressing the students, giving the impression that he was uncomfortable.

TA fails to make eye contact. How did investigators miss this? Also, why didn’t they study his pattern of grading for clues that he was likely to murder four people?

Students said Mr. Kohberger had a strong grasp of the subject matter but was a harsh grader, giving extensive critiques of assignments and then defending the lower marks when students complained as a group. Later in the fall, roughly around the time of the killings, Mr. Stinchfield said Mr. Kohberger seemed to start giving better grades, and the assignments that once had his feedback scrawled across every paragraph began coming back clean.

Apparently when you have just killed four people, it makes you less judgmental of your students, so A’s for everyone! It also apparently makes you “chattier” according to a fellow doctoral student that the New York Post managed to locate:

“Bryan seemed like he was on the knife’s edge between exhaustion and worn out and at the time it was extremely difficult to tell which was which,” he told the outlet.

But Kohberger’s behavior changed markedly after he allegedly killed Kaylee Goncalves, 21, Madison Mogen, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and her boyfriend Ethan Chapin, 20, on Nov. 13 in their off-campus home in Moscow, Idaho, Roberts said.

“He did seem to get a little chattier going into the later parts of the term,” the fellow criminal justice doctoral student told NewsNation.

“On the knife’s edge…” Even for the Post that was a bit much.

Still, this pales in comparison to the breathless game of “Six Degrees of Serial Killer Weirdness” that News Nation played in this report:

So, let me see if I follow this: You interviewed serial killer Dennis Rader’s daughter about her thoughts on Kohberger because Kohberger took undergrad classes from a professor who wrote extensively about her dad? Her insights include that she has no idea if Kohberger actually contacted her father, was influenced by her father, admired her father or  otherwise thought twice about her father.

We could spend days here going through the incredibly insightful coverage from myriad news outlets that have managed to track down Kohberger’s dentist from first grade who always knew he was a bad seed because he failed to floss twice a day. Instead, consider this a reminder of the “the duty to report isn’t the same as the duty to publish” mantra journalists should rely upon when deciding how best to tell a story.

The giant pile of “friends,” “colleagues” and other people who showed up in news reports with tidbits about how Kohberger wasn’t the greatest guy they ever met can seem damning when presented in the context of his arrest on suspicion of killing four people. However, if you go back and watch “Judging Jewell,” you can see a similar pattern of storytelling and anecdote stacking. This is not to say Kohberger is innocent, but it’s not the job of journalists to say he’s guilty, either.

Here’s a good classroom exercise: Go through your own past and pick out several facts that if applied to a story about you being accused of a significant crime would look damning even if they aren’t. For example, here’s mine:

I’m sure I could go on, but I’m already worried about running into myself in a dark alley somewhere…

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