Sniper case fuels tension between police and media

WASHINGTON - Local law officials have alternately used and abused reporters covering the hunt for a sniper terrorizing the DC area, creating tension between the two camps that some say is beginning to hamper the investigation.

Police initially took advantage of the massive media presence by staging up to four press conferences a day, encouraging coverage in hopes of keeping citizens on the watch for the elusive killer. But when the murders seemingly began coming in reaction to police comments (a child was shot outside his school the morning after police boasted about the security at schools), police instantly and utterly changed their PR approach.

Fearing that the constant coverage was emboldening the sniper, local authorities scaled back briefings to once a day, instead handing reporters a phone number they could call with questions. Some police spokespeople even began publicly chiding the media for paying too much attention to the case.

"They received a level of coverage they solicited, and then some," said Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, "and then they tried to put the toothpaste back in the tube."

The sudden shift in strategy irked many of those covering the case, and the cooperation between police and reporters has suffered since. Some have even begun to speculate that the lack of cooperation between the two camps has impaired the investigation.

"When the police departments are speaking with eight different mouths with occasionally contradictory messages, it makes the media wonder who's got the right story and whether this investigation is being run as efficiently as possible," Felling explained. "And with the media, such questions are often asked very loudly."

Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose has been serving as the primary police spokesperson since the attacks began October 2. Acknowledging the tensions last week, he said, "We do understand the power we have with the media in the 21st century, but we also know that we must use that appropriately."

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