Used to extreme effect in the eleventh volume of The Kindaichi Case Files. The killer followed Kindaichi throughout the two-parter mystery, killing people after they provided messages which was supposed to lead to a manuscript he wanted to keep from being published. What neither the killer nor Kindaichi realize until after the last message was a dead end is that the message itself was irrelevant. The real clue was hidden in the order of the now dead message givers. Because of the murders meant to silence them, the newspaper following the last murder would inevitably print them in order of killing, providing the same clue to everyone who read the paper, guaranteeing someone would figure it out before the killer could and prompting a desperate grasping of the Villain Ball.
In One Piece, the denizens of Punk Hazard try to trick Smoker out of investigating their island by putting out toxic gas. The idea was to make him think it was still uninhabitable after a prior accident. Unfortunately, Smoker knows the history of that island and this only makes him more suspicious.
Light's murder of Naomi Misora almost worked as intended but ultimately just alerted L that there was a good chance that Kira was one of the people that her fiance had been investigating.
Light's decision to kill the fake L appearing on television not only failed to catch the real target, but revealed both his general location and the fact that he killed by supernatural means.
People also tend to forget that once L began investigating him and started putting pressure on his mass murder schedule, Light actually managed to kill people in even higher measures each day, as if to contradict his adversary's hypothesis (he reacted to something that should have prompted no change were he not Kira by killing excessively).
The Jack the Ripper conspiracy graphic novel From Hell, and the real-life Prince Albert Victor-centric conspiracy theory it dramatizes, hinges on the monarch of the world's most powerful nation being so threatened by the possibility of unsubstantiated (though true) allegations from four London prostitutes that she has them all murdered.
Not only murdered, but killed in such a needlessly elaborate and gruesome way that it inevitably attracts the attention of half the country, never mind the obsessive detective.
Though Victoria only wanted the situation quietly taken care of. It was her bad luck that the man she picked to do it turned out to be an increasingly insane psychopath who insisted on mutilating the bodies in an ever more shocking and attention drawing fashion.
When Superman villains Blockhouse and Jolt kidnap Lois Lane, they cover the inner walls of their hideout with lead, so Superman cannot find them with his x-ray vision. However, the lead covering makes the building stick out like a sore thumb to Superman since it was the only thing he couldn't see through. This isn't the only time criminals try the trick and have it backfire on them.
In the Daredevil storyline "Blind Justice", an investment banker who thinks his favourite employee may have overheard his unsavoury business dealings has him arbitarily fired so he won't be a target. This is a revealing coverup twice; it attracts his criminal associates' attention to the employee, which is exactly what he wanted to avoid, and the employee himself goes straight to Matt Murdock to talk about a wrongful dismissal suit.
In the Spirou comic "L'ombre du Z", mad scientist Zorglub keeps his jungle base in Palombia hidden by mind-controlling fliers into ignoring everything when they fly over the area. The heroes discover the location by looking up aerial survey photos and finding one page with a huge blank spot, as the photographer "forgot" to take that picture.
Death Note Equestria: At one point, Twilight gets a pony killed in front of the cameras to give herself an alibi. The problem is, she needed to mind-control the reporter to make sure the cameras get there. The reporter was supposed to die later and be overlooked by investigators... except that having her death already assigned, she is now impossible to kill ahead of schedule. This complicates matters immensely when she gets drawn back into the plot due to unforeseen circumstances.
Life After Hayate has the conspiracy's existence is revealed because they altered the mission reports surrounding Hayate Yagami's death. Before that, the way she was killed looked a little too planned for Hayate to be a random skirmish, but nothing could be proved. After, because Chrono has access to the original mission reports, he can prove that someone is trying to cover up how Hayate died.
RainbowDoubleDash's Lunaverse has a Required Secondary Powers version of this. Trixie's original invisibility spell doesn't have silencing effects, which allows Octavia to hear her hoofsteps... but when the former casts a silencing spell, the latter is able to notice the unusual silence that shouldn't be there and use that to work out where she is.
In Mass Effect The Equestrian Equation, System AR-43281, the star system where Equestria is located, at first appears to be nothing but uninhabitable planets with absolutely nothing of interest or value. This trips EDI's logic filters because the odds of there being a star system that bland, with absolutely nothing of value, is so small that they have either found the most impossibly generic and uninteresting star system in the galaxy, or their scanners are being fed false data.
The bad guy in Die Hard With a Vengeance just had to get cute when he left McClane strapped to a bomb; that stupid aspirin bottle led the cops right to him.
If the traitor in the Mission: Impossible film had not tried to be overly clever in trying to frame Kittridge as the real traitor, Ethan Hunt would not have been able to confirm the identity of The Mole on his team. All he'd had to do was simply shoot Hunt, have The Mole grab the list, and he'd have been in the clear with Hunt still considered the traitor and everyone else believing Jim Phelps was dead.
In You Only Live Twice, SPECTRE could have completed their scheme if they hadn't given themselves away on three separate occasions, all but red flags to James Bond and Tiger Tanaka. The first was one where Bond finds a photo of a cargo vessel with a secret message saying the tourists who took the photo were killed, leading him to wonder what in the photo was worth killing for (of course, the photo was in a safe in a office building Bond broke into, perhaps a reasonable level of security). In the second, Bond was doing an aerial search and was about to give up when he was attacked by 4 choppers. They obviously had to have come from SPECTRE, whose base therefore had to be in the general area. Lastly Bond learns of a local woman's mysterious death in a cave, which leads to him and Kissy to investigate it, dodge the poison gas trap and find SPECTRE's base.
In another Bond example, the scheme to steal nuclear weapons in Thunderball would have had a greater chance to succeed if a SPECTRE agent hadn't tried to off Bond while he was on leave and alerting him that something was up. Said SPECTRE agent was then killed for getting Bond's attention, or at least for failing to kill Bond.
In the first movie, Dr. No, the titular doctor's assassination attempts are what convinces Bond that Dr. No and his base are behind everythingnote Alright, Dent's incompetence and Strangways' death helped.
Yet another Bond example in Tomorrow Never Dies. Bond and Wai Lin are trying to deduce which bay the stealth boat is being hidden in. After going through a number of other clues, they decide to check to see if any have any unexplained deaths. Only one does, and they accurately deduce that's where the ship is hidden.
In Diamonds Are Forever, James Bond figures out that diamond smugglers are being bumped off following a failed attempt to burn him alive and the fatal shooting of Shady Tree. After Plenty O'Toole is defenestrated into a swimming pool and soon found dead by Bond and Tiffany Case, he figures out that the operator of the smuggling ring is trying to cover up a terrorist plot.
If the bad guys in L.A. Confidential just killed one guy and dumped his body somewhere, instead of trying to pass his death as a part of another, larger, crime, the various protagonists paths wouldn't have converged and the bad guys wouldn't have been caught.
The Alliance in Serenity (and the predecessor series Firefly) spent a whole lot of time and effort hunting down River Tam, including murdering just about everybody who may have been in contact with her in order to cover up what she learned through her telepathy and being in the same room as several high ranking Alliance members. River, being insane, probably didn't understand what she knew and, in any case, wasn't in any position to tell anybody even if she did. But the Alliance's campaign of persecution gave Serenity's crew a big motive to find out and make the information public knowledge.
While played straight, it's for good reason — the Operative points out they have no idea what River knows (it's entirely possible Miranda isn't the most damaging part), and as River was a test subject in a top secret, her exact limits weren't certain. Given the subversive nature of Simon's liberation of her, it might certainly appear that she'd been sprung by enemies of the state. Learning The Captain of the ship she was on was a former Browncoat didn't help either.
The Conspiracy in Left Behind killed a conspiracy theorist, ransacked his house, and left his corpse lying in it, about 24 hours after The Rapture has caused billions of people to disappear and killed thousands more in the resultant chaos. You'd think adding one more disappearance would be simple for any competent villains. Instead, his friend the Designated Hero finds the body, but since he ends up selling out to the conspiracy later, it might be a mild aversion.
Averted in The Bourne Series. Treadstone assassin Jason Bourne is supposed to kill people in a way that won't cast suspicion on the US government ("I don't send you to kill! I send you because you don't exist!") such as a former dictator who's threatening to blow the whistle on CIA activities in Africa, the plan being to make it look like he'd been killed by one of his own men. After Bourne fails the dictator is killed by a sniper, as by that time Treadstone is trying to cover up for its own activities by making it look like Bourne has gone rogue.
Agent Nick Memphis from Shooter smells fish when the police officer who got a shot at the alleged-would-be assassin of the President dies few days later in a "botched robbery".
In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the Thuggee cult sends an assassin against Indy once he reveals he knows about the Shankara stones to the Maharajah. This gives him the lead he needs to find the secret temple and thwart their evil schemes. If they had just left Indy alone he probably wouldn't have found anything at all. Or they could have just said, "Sorry Dr. Jones, you've overstayed your welcome", given him a lift to the nearest port and sent him home.
Played with in Race to Witch Mountain. The lead characters are quick to publish a book on what happened to them during the movie, specifically they're Genre Savvy enough to know The Government can't touch them without validating their claims.
In Return of the Living Dead, when the medical-supply warehouse staff accidentally release a corpse-animating toxin, their boss chooses to destroy the evidence (i.e. zombies) by burning it with the help of his friend who is employed at Resurrection Funeral Home, rather than risk letting the cops or Army snoop around. This directly causes a localized Zombie Apocalypse in Louisville.
Mercury Rising's plot kicks off when the NSA's supposedly unbreakable code is published in a magazine by low-ranking employee's to test it and a little Autistic Idiot Savant cracks the code and dials the NSA's phone number that was hidden in it. The boss freaks out at this breach of security and sends a hitman to kill the kid and his parents, but who fails to find the boy before the police shows up. Even ignoring how this is well beyond the Moral Event Horizon, the boy still didn't know what the code really meant, had no initiative to find anyone to sell his knowledge to and only the NSA knew he could break the code. But the NSA can't think of a better way to hush this up, apparently.
Fridge Logic kicks in when you realize that the whole point of publishing the code was to see if anyone could break it.
In the movie Sniper 3, the sniper's mission to kill an old war buddy turned Vietnamese drug lord/rogue intelligence agent is interrupted by a second sniper trying to kill him. This is due to the fact that said drug lord is one of three people who had participated in a war crime in Vietnam, the other two being the NSA director and a powerful senator, and they wanted him dead to protect themselves, and kill the killer to ensure that the sniper didn't learn why. Given that they had destroyed all physical evidence of their crimes thirty years earlier, the only reason why it gets discovered is because they tried to cover it up.
Similar to the above, Film/Shooter is about a sniper who is set up as the fall guy for a failed presidential assassination. It turns out that the senator who funded the job was joking about killing the president - it was the African ambassador next to him that was a serious threat. As the real killer puts it, "What better way to kill a man in plain sight of one million americans than by shooting him right next to the president?" By the end of the movie, the sniper successfully uncovers the mass murder of third world tribes for oil pipelines to the Secretary of Defense, but the senator is too high up / the crime is foreign so it isn't in American jurisdiction. So said sniper just kills them all. And ironically covers it up so that the sentator's hitman looks like the shooter.
In The X-Files: Fight the Future, in order to cover up the deaths of five people exposed to an alien virus, the Conspiracy sticks the bodies into a building in downtown Dallas and blows it up trying to get them classified as victims of a bombing, which of course attracts Mulder and Scully's attention, instead of dumping them in the ocean or incinerating them or any of the other million ways a government could get rid of a few bodies without Mulder and Scully ever knowing that anything was going on.
Played with, in that Holmes does deduce this, but no one else learns about it.
Taken to extremes in 11:14, in which three different people, afraid that they or someone they love will be accused of killing Aaron, enact different schemes to conceal his death, make it look like an accident or suicide, or frame someone else for it. Aaron wasn't even murdered.
This exchange from The Mad Magician concerning the murder of Ormond, though at this point The Great Rinaldi merely suspects Don Gallico's involvement.
The Great Rinaldi: You had every reason to hate him. What did you do with him, Gallico? How did you get rid of it? [indicating the retort in the center of the room] Was this thing already built and hidden away, waiting for a job like that? Don Gallico: Ormond was seen alive two weeks ago. The Prentisses identified him. The Great Rinaldi: That didn't have to be him. Don Gallico: Who else could it have been? The Great Rinaldi: It could have been you, Gallico. From what Ormond told me you are a clever man, developed a wonderful new makeup, something new in the theater. Something that might be used offstage too. Only a man who dreams up illusions would think of such a thing, and only people of the theater would know it was possible.
This happens a lot in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels involving the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. You'd think people would have learned that if you try to cover something up in Ankh-Morpork, Commander Samuel Vimes is only going to get suspicious, dig deeper, and then come down on you like a ton of rectangular building things.
But is subverted in a rather interesting fashion in Thud!!, when word is intentionally spread that a murder is not to be reported to the Watch, knowing that Vimes will find out sooner or later and come snooping around. The person who gave the order does this because he wants Vimes to unearth and stop the immoral activities of his superiors, which he himself is powerless to stop. (When Vimes works this out he's offended at the thought he might need to be tricked into being interested in a murder.)
Also subverted in Jingo! when in order to cover up the fact that he had tried to have his brother killed as an excuse to start a war, the Crown Prince of Klatch (the Discworld's country of Saudi Arabia stereotypes) had various stereotypical items (coins, sand, everything but a "camel under the pillow" etc) left behind to make Vimes think that someone was trying to make him think that the assassin was Klatchian.
Indeed, it's also revealed eventually that a Klatchian pretended to be the villain and fled to Klatch in order to lure Vimes there so he could actually help.
And in the Discworld novel Interesting Times, the Agatean Empire tells its citizens that outside the Empire is nothing but a howling wasteland of invisible, man-eating ghosts. So when they have to go to war with barbarian invaders, they have to quickly change tack, and say that the enemy are not invisible, man-eating ghosts. Since Rincewind the wizard is technically on the side of the barbarian invaders, he wanders through the camp telling people that there officially are ''not'' 2,300,009 invisible, giant, man-eating ghosts. He was quite proud of the "9": If he'd simply said that there aren't any, they might have believed him, but since he is saying there aren't 2,300,009 of them, people obviously wonder about the precision.
It helps that the Empire's army of 700,000 men is already confused about why the barbarian army of seven men is cheerfully marching out to fight them. The Big Bad tries to be Genre Savvy when he realizes the rumour won't be squashed, by spreading the tale that those ghosts in fact are there, and that this has enraged the spirits of the Empire's ancestors. It backfires because the empire's armies have been fighting a lot of civil wars, and many soldiers are not keen on meeting the spirits of their late opponents either.
In the James Bond novel You Only Live Twice, evil mastermind Blofeld decides to best way to lie low is to operate a castle with a poison garden for people wanting to commit suicide. If they change their mind, the "gardeners" assist them. No one is going to pay any attention to that, right?
The novel explicitly points out that Blofeld had gone entirely off his nut by this point, and had actually been expecting the authorities to shut him down soon. In fact, the entire reason Bond was asked to go there in the first place was to kill "Shatterhand" in exchange for some intelligence, seeing as the garden itself was perfectly legal. He just happens to recognize Shatterhand as the man who killed his wife.
Being a Gentleman BastardLocke Lamora loves this trope. Case in point: running a con on a wealthy nobleman, then disguising himself as one of the secret police and informing the mark that he's being robbed.
The second book takes it all Up to Eleven, with Locke running this trope back and forth between at least two different marks, at once exposing his plans and yet diverting suspicion away from himself.
How many Doc Savage pulps started out with the villain trying to pull a preemptive strike on the Man of Bronze, getting his minions slamdunked, and Doc then becoming curious about what was going on?
In Sandy Mitchell's Ciaphas Cainnote HERO OF THE IMPERIUM! novel Duty Calls, Cain's Fake Ultimate Hero status bites him in the ass again when a rogue Inquisitor tries to have him killed — repeatedly — because of what he would surely have found out otherwise. Needless to say, he had no idea anything was going on until people suddenly started trying to kill him, and his investigation into why people are trying to kill him blows the plot wide open.
The Zero Game, a mysterious game is set up and then all but one of the participants are killed off in suspicious ways. The worst part is that the game is really just an elaborate ruse to get an abandoned mine reopened. Which they could have gotten much more cheaply and easily just by simply asking. And not only was the mine completely unnecessary to their plans, it actually made it more difficult.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy, being a Conspiracy Kitchen Sink, naturally has one of these. When a leftwing magazine's office is bombed, the police investigating find a stash of strange notes about The Illuminati in the wreckage. Subverted in that the bomb was set by the magazine's editor, as part of a Batman Gambit to get one of the police detectives investigating the Illuminati.
In Jules Verne's Master of the World, our hero investigates a mountain that's producing odd rumblings, but is unable to climb to the top. After giving up and filing it under "unexplained," he gets a note saying, "Stay away from that mountain, or it'll go badly for you!" If Robur had just left him alone, the hero would have dropped the case.
In The Pelican Brief, the protagonist writes up a theory—more idle speculation than anything else—about why three US Supreme Court justices were killed. Then her car gets bombed. She isn't killed, and she realizes that her speculation must have hit a little close to home, and she begins investigating in earnest.
In The Hound of the Baskervilles, the villain steals one of an intended victim's new boots, then returns to swipe one of an older pair, while returning the first one, presumably so the owner would assume he'd just misplaced it. Granted, Holmes was bound to solve the case anyway, but the fact that the boot not bearing its owner's smell was brought back again clinched his suspicion that there was a real, trained dog involved. Had the culprit stolen all four boots and returned nothing, Holmes couldn't have ruled out the possibility that one of the hotel staff had a profitable sideline stealing guests' possessions.
Both of the Fargo Adventures by Clive Cussler written so far depend on this. The Fargos find some obscure item which is at least four steps away from in one case an artifact the villain wanted to find, and the other a secret the villain wants to conceal. So the villain sends assassins after them, letting the Fargos know that their totally innocuous discovery was important somehow. Had they just purchased the item at a fair price, or simply ignored them entirely, the villain would have succeeded.
Lyra Silvertongue, in His Dark Materials, carries out this skill with the modifiers of being the hero and a twelve-year-old girl. Her strategy, when she finds out that the cops are looking for her companion, Will, is to talk to the cops themselves, pretending that Will is her brother, to throw them off the trail. Will, who prefers to blend in and go completely unnoticed, finds this very irritating.
Subverted in the Andrew Vachss Burke book Another Life; Burke and crew have a scene blown up rather than burned down in order to erase evidence, and he rationalizes it to another character by saying that in that bad neighbourhood, druggies' "experiments" going boom is normal, but arson is not.
Noticeably averted in Seven Days in May, about a plot to take over the US via Military Coup. Several people who appear to have been murdered turn out later to have been merely detained on justifiable pretexts. There's only one suspicious death (of a White House aide carrying direct evidence of the conspiracy who had to be stopped) and only luck enables the signed confession he was carrying to survive the plane crash and be found in time to avert the coup. The closest you get to this trope is when an orderly is reassigned to Hawaii after discussing an apparently innocuous signal with the protagonist, which is what first arouses his suspicions.
Vladimir Vasilyev's Wolfish Nature duology starts with someone stumbling on a wolf (dog-humans able to kill) enclave in Siberia. The wolves quickly eliminate him and anyone in his address book whom he may have contacted, finishing with a guy whom he only called because of dialing a wrong number. Since murder is incredibly rare in this world (genetic engineering having "excised" the so-called "wolf gene" from all dog-humans, making them incapable of killing), this sudden string of murders (including murder-suicides) catches the attention of the governments, who quickly deduce the existence of the wolves. Just a few weeks after the first murder, the Siberian town of Alzamay where the enclave is located is full of spies from all major powers.
In the Night Huntress books, there is a minor example: Bones realizes that Cat is being moved when the Men in Black clear an entire floor of the hospital and otherwise make a big to-do of it. After which, they were easy to follow.
The Stainless Steel Rat has Jim noting that secrecy is an obviousity, leading him to disguise his investigation by posing as a flamboyant, wealthy visitor to the planet he's sniffing around on. Ultimately, the criminals get spooked and step up their plan, though it's never revealed just what tipped them off.
Live Action TV
In Veronica Mars, it's the Kanes' coverup of what they believed to be the circumstances of Lily's death that alerts Keith to their dishonesty.
Hedgefund Home Boys: The fact that the body had been moved reveals that the murder was unlikely to have been the accident the killer had so elaborately set up.
Hell Hath No Fury: By wrapping the body in a rug meant to implicate a political rival, Castle and Beckett realized that it was more than a robbery gone wrong.
Alexis: So by trying to look smart they were actually being stupid? Castle: I think you just described the human condition.
Poof! You're Dead features a faux-Bernie Madoff billionaire ponzi-schemer who has faked his own death with the aid of a brilliant stage magician. He would have gotten away with it, but killing the one man who knew his secret, the magician, lead to his undoing.
Always: Appears to be another case of this. A robbery by the Big BadConspiracy meant to eliminate evidence gets Castle and Beckett their first lead in almost a year. Averted, though because the conspirators didn't care about leaving evidence for Beckett; they were really raiding Montgomery's house to discover who was blackmailing them so they could kill Beckett once and for all.
Hawaii Five-0 super agent Wo Fat had a cunning plan to distract archenemy Steve McGarret...which alerted the good guys something was up and allowed them to discover Wo Fat's real operation which, up until then, they had no idea was actually going on. It turns out China wanted to test a new missile but keep the Americans from analyzing it via radar, so Wo Fat was sent to disable the Pacific radar net for a critical few seconds, which he does by kidnapping the daughter of one of the men responsible for the system. Absolutely no one on the American side realizes this is happening. For some reason, Wo Fat believes McGarret will find out, and launches his distraction plan that he'd previously prepared in case he ever needed it. Once Wo Fat's involvement is known, police, intelligence, and military get together to try to figure out what Wo Fat is up to, discover a glitch in the radar system that had occurred a few days earlier (during a test to make sure that the system could be brought down), and while investigating it, on the off chance it has something to do with Wo Fat, uncover the kidnapping and blackmail.
Season 5 of 24 opens with the bad guys trying to frame Bauer which only gets him involved in the scheme far earlier than he would have (if ever).
Double-Subverted in Season 8, when a villain disguised as an EMT suspects Renee Walker recognized him. He tells his boss he can get rid of her and Bauer, but the boss orders him to wait out of concern for this trope. Ultimately, the guy goes ahead with an attempt anyway, but by that time Renee's already realized where she recognized the man from and alerted CTU to the fact.
Not to mention what happens afterwards is what ultimately brings Jack back into the field for the final episodes of the season. It's entirely possible that some of the more high ranking villians in that paticular plot would have gotten away had it not been for Jack's involvement. Nice job breaking it villian!
In the two-part story "Aliens of London/World War Three", a fake UFO crash was organized by real aliens among the British government to cause worldwide panic and distract attention from themselves and such "non-noteworthy" events as the "disappearance" of the Prime Minister. While this did allow them to take over 10 Downing Street, wipe out most of the country's alien-invasion experts (who were intentionally gathered in Number Ten to discuss the crash, so they could be taken out) and gain access to the British nuclear arsenal, it also alerted the Doctor and Rose Tyler to their presence.
Much later, the Doctor spends time running around erasing all evidence of himself from history. The one thing he can't access, the Dalek's database, another character does for him. However, as one of his allies points out, this creates a "Doctor-shaped hole" in history obvious to anyone who cares enough to look.
One episode has a murderer prowling the streets of Victorian London who makes a point of partially burning the bodies of all of his victims; Madame Vastra correctly deduces that he's harvesting the victim's organs, then burning the bodies so the police can't tell what's missing.
A lot of the murderers in Columbo do this. As do about half of the murderers in Monk and the various Law & Order spin-offs.
This was the plot of the bad guys in the second season NUMB3RS episode "Rampage". A man (who was a perfectly innocent civilian dad aside from having a brown belt in martial arts) was blackmailed into going on a shooting rampage in the FBI building and provoke an emergency evacuation in order to cover up getting a list of key witnesses in a trial out of the building. In a slight subversion, while the FBI was able to connect the shooter to the criminal, the guy was off the grid. The break came when Charlie analyzed the shooter's path, discovering that the only conscious choice he had made was to avoid shooting two people, one of whom was carrying the list.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mayor inexplicably has Faith kill a previously unheard-of archaeologist, who had just discovered the corpse of an Olvikan demon killed by a volcanic eruption, the same kind of demon that the Mayor planned to turn into. Lampshaded:
Wesley: Ah, by attempting to keep a valuable clue from us, the mayor may have inadvertently led us right to it.
Buffy: What page are you on, Wes? 'Cause we already got there.
This is how The X-Files starts. All the weird brainwashing, floodlights, and murders undermine Scully's skepticism. Of course, it stays throughout the series, but...
Occasionally invoked by the conspiracy as to why they don't just kill Mulder:
Cigarette Smoking Man: Kill Mulder, and you risk turning one man's crusade into a religion.
In one episode of Murder, She Wrote, Jessica is shot at while investigating at the behest of the accused's wife, while the accused himself is in jail. She quickly realizes it was the wife, who was worried Jessica was starting to think her husband might be guilty, and wanted to provide evidence otherwise.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine invokes this trope in the opener of the last season; it's not until an assassin from the cult of the Pah Wraiths shows up to kill him and vows that he "will never find the orb of the Emissary" that Sisko learns it even exists (let alone that he needs to find it).
Pulled earlier by Garak when he sees a Romulan assassin on the station. Garak blows up his own shop to make Odo think the assassin did it, but Odo discovers otherwise that the assassin works with poisons not explosives.
And then the assassin gets killed anyway as though someone was covering their tracks, which only stokes Odo's curiosity further. By the time Odo and Garak figure out what's going on, the Romulans and Cardassians are making a joint first-strike on the Dominion.
An episode of Simon And Simon had a tourist hire the Simon Brothers to find out why she was the victim of a series of petty thefts: first her camera, then her purse, then her hotel room was broken into... Turned out she'd snapped a picture that showed a man someplace he wasn't supposed to be in the background, and he was trying to get the film. (She had already dropped it off to be developed, when he started stealing her stuff looking for it.)
In a variant compressed into less than five seconds, the team on NCIS needs to locate some terrorists hiding among any of a dozen warehouses. Knowing they're pressed for time, Gibbs whips out a shotgun and blasts a nearby street light, which causes the terrorists' rooftop lookout to immediately open fire and give away the bad guys' position. Had he had the sense to quietly keep his head down, the team would've been too late to stop them.
Occurs regularly in Person of Interest. Someone plans a premeditated violent crime to cover up something else (Sometimes the something else isn't even illegal), and the Machine detects this and sends Reese and Finch out to stop the coverup, which exposes what the coverup was intended to hide. Though in fairness the villains don't know of the existence of a supercomputer whose specific task is to detect premeditated crimes.
The Jonathan Creek episode "The Case of the Savant's Thumb". It turns out the murderers were government agents trying to destroy a certain DVD and kill anyone who'd seen it. The exact contents of the DVD aren't revealed except that it's a conversation between Very Important People and confirms the nastiest suspicions people had about them. The twist is that the DVD is of a rather heavy-handed satire show that employed lookalikes, but as Jonathan says, it's interesting that someone high up thought it could be real.
The Elementary episode "The Red Team" has a kind of double-layered version of this; the culprit's attempts to kill off the other members of a war games team that came up with a successful plan to attack New York (since he doesn't want the plan to be exposed to terrorists) not only alerts Sherlock to the targets, but also leads him to deducing what the attack plan was.
In "Step Nine", the murderer, on seeing that Holmes and Watson are on his tail, panics and races to murder his accomplice to tie up loose ends. He makes a bungle of this, resulting in him getting caught.
In In Justice: the corrupt FBI official who helped railroad an innocent man tries to blackmail the National Justice Project into dropping the case by threatening to have the FBI look into one of Swain's clients. Ultimately, it's the suspicious nature of the threat (a high ranking member of the FBI using blackmail to try and shut a case his son's involved in) that convinces Swain to actually take the case (initially he was opposed to getting involved.)
JAG: In "Déjà Vu", Colonel Patano, the Thai Embassy chief of security, bribes a witness into telling the cops that he didn't see anything. Which is entirely true, as he really didn't see anything. However, he decides to tell Harm about the bribe.
Invoked in the Sherlock episode "The Hounds of Baskerville" as an explanation for why the episode's murderer did not simply kill a man who had seen too much and was telling what he'd seen to the news:
Sherlock: Because dead men get listened to! He needed to do more than kill you; he needed to discredit every word you'd ever said.
Used several different ways in an episode of Diagnosis: Murder in which the killer tries to make the victim's death look like suicide-by-pill-overdose. The killer wipes their own prints off the pill bottle, but the lack of any prints, including the victims', piques Mark Sloan's suspicion. Also, when he notes that the lack of a suicide note is irregular, the killer forges one using the victim's laptop; Mark checks the laptop's date-stamp and finds that the note was typed 20 hours after the victim's death.
A Real Life example occurred with Data East's Back to the Future pinball machine. Michael J. Fox did not allow his likeness to be used for the game, so instead artist Paul Faris used his son as the model for Marty. To hide this fact, "Marty" is drawn on the backglass with his face covered by a pair of large sunglasses — which only serves to draw more attention to his non-resemblance to Fox.
Splinter Cell: Conviction, where if the conspirators hadn't sent thugs to try and kill Sam Fisher he would never have been aware there was even a conspiracy in the first place. Of course, we shortly find out that one of the top-level conspirators is an double agent and old friend of Sam's who wanted him to find out and be bought to her.
Yahtzee: Note that Sam only finds out about the conspiracy after it sends thugs to kill him, so the baddies said to themselves, "Hey, the one guy who could threaten our operation is in a different country and isn't the slightest bit interested in our stupid conspiracy. Fuck that, let's go shoot at him!"
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory actually has this as a tutorial video titled "what not to do", showing a guard getting suspicious when he finds a light turned off - investigating, he finds the door in the darkened room with a broken lock, leading to yet another room with the light off, and finding an unconscious colleague. Cue them hitting the alarms. If you hadn't turned off the lights in an attempt to hide the mess you left, the guard would have probably never found it.
Clock Tower 3 has the protagonist's grandfather plan to sacrifice the protagonist when she turns 15 in order to gain immortality as an evil creature. To accomplish this he sends strange letters, sets up traps and throws her into various evil settings. Along the way, she clues in that something very wrong is going down, awakens her evil-fighting powers, and hones her combat skills by killing off other evil creatures; by the time he finally confronts her, she is ready to take him down. The alternative, not pulling any of that crap and just welcome her home, celebrate her birthday and then suddenly sacrifice her when the time is right, doesn't really occur to him.
Many of the mysteries in the Dangan Ronpa series would be a lot harder to solve if the culprits hadn't insisted on giving themselves "perfect alibis", which always creates a chain of evidence leading back to them as the only person who had a reason to create such a convoluted set-up.
One in particular takes the cake. Had anime otaku Yamada not insisted on incorporating Transformers cosplay into his murder plans, his frameup job on Hagakure would probably have worked.
Another notable one at the end: the photographs given to the students by Monokuma all have Junko's face obscured. This is a key part of the final trial.
Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness: King Aiden Perenolde of Alterac made a secret alliance with the Horde. To cover the orcs' mining operations in the Hinterlands, he plots a peasant revolt in the township of Tyr's Hand, which only succeeds in bringing the attention of the Alliance to the region, who send the Silver Hand to investigate and then destroy the Horde presence. Not deterred by this failure, Perenolde then tries to have Lord Uther assassinated, thus revealing to him Alterac's betrayal.
In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies , the desperate attempts of "the Phantom" to keep his existence a secret, which includes at least two murders (three if you count him killing Bobby Fulbright and stealing his identity) and bombing a courtroom to either steal or destroy evidence, ultimately contributes to his undoing.
L.A. Noire: You know, it may have just been the deadlines and lack of serious threats talking, but burning down entire houses with families still alive in them is NOT a good way to hush up a government-level scam. Cole proceeds to crack the case wide open. Sadly, his rival remixes the coverup so that the corrupt higher-ups are arrested, but the multibillion dollar redevelopment project (read: highway that made Los Angeles a megacity) goes ahead (this turns out to be a bad idea, as it leads to the Crapsack World of GTA).
Girl Genius lampshaded this in thesetwo strips, where Tarvek teaches Vrin the right way to cover up things that are best kept hidden.
Ysengrin tries to pull one of these off on this page of Gunnerkrigg Court. Four pages later, Jones points it out, calling it a "fairly transparent ruse" (apparently, being on "the brink of insanity" was why Ysengrin didn't think to just drop the seeds while Coyote and Reynardine were arguing).
An odd meta-example: Antimony was given the Faceless Masses treatment on pages 399 and 400, presumably so she wouldn't distract from the foreground. Several fans took notice of this, and theorized that there was some sinister significance behind Annie's blank-faced grin.
The spoiler tags on This Very Wiki, whether they're placed next to incomplete sentences or not. Of course, the idea is to let people know they shouldn't read these parts, but it can't deter curiosity.
When the Homestar Runner gets something stuck in his craw he tries to cover up the resulting lump by putting a wig on it or painting it green with red stripes (against a yellow shirt). This only leads to other characters commenting on how gross it is. It turns out to be his Iconic Outfit red shirt
Used in ReBoot: Hexadecimal's extra security concerning The Medusa, a weapon she's developing, prompts Megabyte to steal it in hopes of gaining the power it's sure to have. The twist being that this was exactly what she wanted to happen, and he becomes the Medusa bug's first victim, while she gloats.
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Near the end of "A Canterlot Wedding, Part One", Twilight Sparkle's slanderous and unfounded claims that her brother's wife-to-be is an evil imposter has resulted in her friends, her brother and the princess losing their trust in her, leaving her a doubt-filled wreck. Instead of talking her into going back to Ponyville in shame, or just leaving her alone, the evil imposter decides to reveal her true nature and sends Twilight down to the dungeons, where she finds the real bride, realizes she was right all along, and organizes a breakout followed by a wedding interruption.
Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated had Mr. E invoke this trope on Scooby and co. He gave the gang just enough information about the former Mystery Inc to get them interested and let the attempts of Crystal Cove's adults to hide anything about it keep the kids interested in order to draw them into the real secret of the town a hidden treasure that, unknown to even Mr. E, is cursed and hiding an Eldritch Abomination who's been luring mystery solvers to it for centuries.
The excesses of the Nixon Administration might not have become public if flunkies hadn't been carrying out completely unnecessary break-ins, with more cunning plans piled on top to prevent the preceding cunning plans from coming to light, which instead attracted even more attention.
Nixon was facing a weak opponent because the stronger opponent, Ed Muskie, was marginalized after a letter, forged by Nixon aide Ken Clawson, claimed that Muskie was a racist. Watergate was simply a continuation of the cheating they did before.
It was even worse than that: Nixon was completely unconnected to the planning related to the Watergate break-in, and wouldn't have been implicated in the scandal at all...except that he chose to misuse his powers as President to try and cover it up, which caused the disgruntled Deep Throat (FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, whose agency was being directly interfered with in a manner that is extremely dangerous if you value proper law enforcement) to expose the whole mess, destroying Nixon's political career.
Often the only convictions that result in a scandal come from the coverup, rather than the actual crime. Partly, this is because in the United States, obstruction of justice laws are so broad that they can be interpreted to cover almost anything. Sometimes it's because the real evidence was destroyed in the coverup, and so the only evidence left is for the coverup. Finally, when confronting a defendant who they feel is guilty but without enough evidence to convict, a jury will search for some lesser charge like obstruction to nail them on.
Martha Stewart was found guilty of concealing evidence that she'd engaged in insider trading, but not of actual insider trading itself.
Bill Clinton famously was impeached over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. However, while tacky and morally reprehensible, his affair wasn't actually illegal. He was indicted over perjuring himself by lying to a grand jury to cover the affair up. His defenders argued that it was mostly political, and that the "crime" itself was so silly that the coverup shouldn't be prosecutable.
The publishing company behind the Harry Potter books, in their rush to snuff out leaks, might have confirmed the authenticity of said leaks by issuing highly visible subpoenas to certain websites. If they'd allowed the leaks to persist, they might be indiscernible from the huge amount of fake spoilers being posted up.
An incompetent version of this was behind the whole Roswell mystery. When a rancher discovered some strange debris on his property, the top brass realized that it was actually a balloon from a secret government project called Project Mogul (the balloons were supposed to be an early-warning system in the event of a nuclear strike). Since Project Mogul was top secret, the government quickly confiscated the debris and ordered a press conference denying that it was anything but a weather balloon. Sometime after that, word got out that the weather balloon story was a cover up. Project Mogul was still classified, so they could only confirm that yes, the weather balloon story was a cover up, and no, they couldn't disclose what it was covering up. Bear in mind that this was the height of UFO sightings in the USA, and you have the explanation from how things went from "a few plastic strips and metal rods found on a ranch" to "OMG ALIENS!!!"
Notice, however, that nobody thought "OMG SECRET AIR FORCE EARLY WARNING SYSTEM", so the cover up worked.
The notoriety of the Roswell Incident stems from the fact that the first cover story used actually was "we've captured a flying saucer." (This lasted for about a day, and was the brainchild of a foolhardy local PR officer.) The replacement "weather balloon" cover passed without notice for decades; it was only in the 70s (once eyewitnesses became conveniently hard to locate) that UFO enthusiasts could latch onto the original cover story as a "smoking gun" and build an entertaining conspiracy theory out of it.
Scientology's Operation Snow White was started with the intention of expunging all 'unfavorable' material pertaining to the cult. Scarily, 5,000 of the organization's agents penetrated the IRS, FBI and other US government organizations, the largest such infiltration in history, and did manage to abscond with the 'erroneous' documents. Two Scientologists were caught essentially red-handed by the FBI, and from there the whole plot unraveled, and ended up with several prominent Scientologists getting hefty fines or prison sentences, including L. Ron Hubbard's wife. The resultant publicity caused a backlash against the Church, and indirectly led to its banning in several countries.
This very wiki sometimes falls into this, through badly placed spoiler tags. For example, if someone apparently dies (only to show up again many issues later), and an article describes it as "her apparent death"... there are very few words that would fit into that spot, and most of them indicate that the person's still around in some sense. So unless we all get into the habit of saying "her real, permanent, not a dream, not a robot, not an imaginary story! death", it's probably best to stick the spoiler at the end, where it could mean any number of things, including things that happened to someone else entirely.
This trope is the reason (some) government agencies will simply flat out deny/refuse to comment on any and everything. Saying that something is incorrect/won't work may imply that someone is on the right track of duplicating something or similar situations.
A sister trope to the Streisand Effect. Barbra Streisand's palatial estate was photographed from the air by a California coast survey. She sued to suppress the photos, but once they were the subject of a major lawsuit they suddenly became newsworthy and were plastered on news sites all over the internet. Plus public outrage once the courts upheld the photographer's First Amendment rights led to huge numbers of people searching for the photo just to see what the fuss was about.
During WWII, many nuclear physicists correctly deduced that their foreign colleagues were working on top-secret atomic bomb programs because they were no longer publishing research papers.
Specifically, the Soviet nuclear scientist Georgy Flyorov stumbled upon this by accident. He had written a paper on spontaneous nuclear fission that was nominated for a Stalin Prize but rejected, because western scientists had taken no notice of it even though he published an article in Physical Review. Peeved, Flyorov leafed through U.S. physical journals in search of a review of his work when he noticed that not only was there none, but there were no articles at all about nuclear fission. This led him to the conclusion that the (at first still neutral) American government had made the matter a state secret because it was working on producing a nuclear bomb. However, it actually was a subversion, as American physicists had decided among themselves in April 1940 (about a year before the launch of the atom bomb program) to stop publishing anything pertaining to nuclear fission in order not to give anything away that might help the Germans build a nuclear bomb.
Averted when sci-fi writer Cleve Cartmill wrote a short story called "Deadline" that described how to build a uranium-fission bomb; it was published in the March 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The FBI demanded the issue be removed from the newsstands, but Astounding editor John W. Campbell convinced them this would only draw unwanted attention.
Worse attempts to use Photoshop to cover up something that sticks out, like a watermark, often results in some indication that something was there.
Likewise, many magazine covers and advertisements feature women who are uncannily blemish free. Or downright anatomically impossible.
One of the first thing arson and police investigators look for in the case of fires that have had fatalities is evidence the victims were dead first and the fire used to hide that fact.
This fact has saved several journalists that have speculated on classified information. In 1944, a crossword puzzle in a London newspaper coincidentally used several codewords for the upcoming Normandy landings and massive deception campaign. It turned out that there was no connection but nothing was done as doing anything would draw attention to it. Similarly, though in a less innocent case, Col. Robert R. Mc Cormick, who was still an isolationist, speculated that the US had broken Japanese codes and was left alone so to avoid drawing attention.
One theory regarding John Muhammad, the DC Beltway Sniper, was that his random killings were a setup so he could eventually kill his ex-wife in the same manner, knowing that he could avoid the usual suspicion of the ex-husband if she were believed to be a random victim. Due to the massive media coverage of the case, he was caught before executing this plan.