MEDIA WATCH: Beltway sniper case places media's role under the spotlight

Since October 2, the Beltway sniper has struck fear in the nation?s capital for the random identities of his victims, the precision of his shots, the lack of knowledge about his motives, the breadth of the area he has covered, and his ability to elude the authorities. There are few leads, no composite drawing, and it?s not even known if the sniper has an accomplice.

Since October 2, the Beltway sniper has struck fear in the nation?s capital for the random identities of his victims, the precision of his shots, the lack of knowledge about his motives, the breadth of the area he has covered, and his ability to elude the authorities. There are few leads, no composite drawing, and it?s not even known if the sniper has an accomplice.

Indeed, the sniper investigation has become big news, with seemingly nonstop TV coverage, daily updates in the papers, and even cover stories in each of the biggest news magazines ? Time, Newsweek, and US News & World Report (October 21 for each). Given such blanket coverage, the role of the media has itself become a topic of debate. At issue is the delicate balancing act of a number of factors: (1) an interest in serving the community with information so that citizens can be aware of the latest goings-on and act/react accordingly, (2) a hope that some bit of coverage will spark a new lead from someone in the public, but combined with (3) 24-hour news channels having a lot of time to devote to the sniper, (4) media outlets looking to scoop the competition on a new sniper-related story, and (5) police officials not wanting to reveal too much information and inhibit their investigation. An analysis of recent coverage has indicated a backlash against the media for giving the sniper the attention and fame he wants. The Washington Post (October 13) asserted, ?Out-of-control publicity makes him feel larger than life and feeds his sense of control. The news media contributes to the situation simply by paying it too much attention.? Coverage has been particularly criticized in this case since so few facts have been made public, lending much of the coverage to be ?endless media psychoanalysis? (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 15) based purely on speculation. In this debate on the role of the media, the only thing that almost everyone could agree on was that the sniper was probably watching the coverage and getting some kind of perverse ego trip out of all the attention. Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose, who heads the investigation, was especially vocal that the media was overstepping its boundaries when the discovery of the tarot card was made public. There were fewer stories arguing that the media exposure could help a member of the public bring forward a clue to solving the case. John Walsh of America?s Most Wanted brought up this point in an October 11 interview with CNN?s Paula Zahn. Others pointed out that the Unabomber case was only solved after the media published his manifesto. Some of the most disturbing coverage included reports that the attacks were based on what was said about the sniper in the media. The San Francisco Chronicle (October 15) wrote, ?When the police said on TV that schools were safe, a child was shot in front of his school the next day. The sniper is clearly taking cues from what he sees on TV and reads in the papers.? Although outlets are juggling a host of concerns as they weigh what they should cover and what they shouldn?t, there appears to be a growing voice suggesting that the media should tone down its coverage and let the police do their work.
  • Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.

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