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On the Trail of the D.C. Sniper: Fear and the Media

On the Trail of the D.C. Sniper: Fear and the Media

by Jack R. Censer

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For a month in the fall of 2002, a series of sniper attacks suddenly dominated the headlines in the nation’s capital. Beginning in the Washington suburbs, these crimes eventually stretched over one hundred miles along I-95 to Richmond. More than a thousand law officers would pursue the perpetrators—an enormous number for one case. The number of


For a month in the fall of 2002, a series of sniper attacks suddenly dominated the headlines in the nation’s capital. Beginning in the Washington suburbs, these crimes eventually stretched over one hundred miles along I-95 to Richmond. More than a thousand law officers would pursue the perpetrators—an enormous number for one case. The number of reporters covering the story, however, was even greater. On the Trail of the D.C. Sniper uses the remarkable events of that October to explore the shifting character of journalism as it entered the twenty-first century and to question how this change in the way news is gathered and reported impacted the events it covered.

Because of its political significance, Washington, D.C., although not a huge population center, is home to an international news corps rivaling that of London or New York. The sniper story thus gained unusually broad media coverage. These events also coincided with the rise of cable network news, meaning that the story would be delivered through a greatly accelerated news cycle. Continuous coverage on television meant a more intense race for scoops; when a major development wasn’t available, lesser incidents were sometimes played up in an attempt to maintain the sense of an always unfolding story.

Jack Censer looks at the atmosphere of heightened anxiety in which this killing spree occurred—coming only a year after the 9/11 attacks, as well as the unsolved anthrax scare centered in the D.C. area—and asks if the press, by intensifying its focus, also intensified the sense of fear.To bring in another perspective, Censer looks closely at the elementary and secondary schools in the area, comparing their experience of the threat with the press’s perception, and presentation, of it. In most cases, school officials chose a course of precaution in which life could carry on, rather than one of hypervigilance and lockdowns.

Although it is widely thought that journalists have strong political and commercial biases, Censer reveals that in this case the press was motivated, above all, by the creation of a gripping story to evoke emotion from its audience. One of the most detailed studies yet published of how the press follows a story in the twenty-four-hour news era, this book provides a window on post-9/11 anxiety and the relationship between those fears, public events, and the news media.

Editorial Reviews

author of Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press - Michael Schudson
Based on strong and remarkably comprehensive research of news coverage across the media, this book is an intelligent and knowledgeable work on a traumatic event that became a matter of broad national interest. This episode is well worth the kind of close attention Censer gives it

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University of Virginia Press
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Fear and the Media


Copyright © 2010 Jack R. Censer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8139-2894-4


The murder of James D. Martin in the late afternoon of October 2,2001, at a grocery story parking lot in Montgomery County, Maryland, and an errant shot through the window of a neighboring store minutes earlier, went largely unremarked in the media. However, the gunning down nearby of four more people the following morning soon attracted attention. By the time a fifth person was shot on October 3, near the border between Maryland and the District of Columbia, police resources had been focused-an effort that only increased during the next twenty-one days, before the capture of the culprits less than fifty miles northwest of the original shooting.

* * *

When the snipers assailed Washington, the events made a story that was told all over the globe, although with more intensity by the media outlets between Baltimore, Maryland, and Richmond, Virginia. A number of reasons suggest the importance of studying the press during this particular time, not the least of which is the understanding that can be gained through a carefully focused case study that allows a very detailed understanding of the press in action.

Most scholars of the recent press have opted for a more thematic approach that covers a wider territory than will this present study. And even though library shelves already groan with historical case studies of the media, highly focused endeavors to comprehend the press's very recent history have been mainly limited to scholars who gained access for specific periods of time and then reported their observations. Although this approach allows the scholar the ability to gather information, ask pointed questions, and avoid the dimming of memory with the passage of time, such studies depend on the events that occur within the selected time period, whether those events are coincidental or major. This study, however, examines a critical period when the press intensified its usual efforts, methodologies, patterns, and practices, and, at least in some ways, the effects of its work. Further, this exploration depicts the press after the events of September 11, 2001, at a time when the American public had grown enormously fearful. To be certain, there have been many other periods when American citizens have been fearful, whether such anxieties have been justified or not. But there can be little doubt that following the buoyant years at the end of the Cold War and accompanying the economic growth that characterized the last decade of the millennium, the attacks on the Pentagon in Washington and on New York's World Trade Center towers shocked most every American. Further, a spate of anthrax poisonings, focused in the Washington area several months before the sniper incident, had served to greatly re-arouse the jitters of area residents, if not a larger segment of the American populace. Thus, a study of the press in the Washington area during October 2002, can help us to understand America's anxieties in the early twenty-first century, and to examine the relationships between those heightened anxieties, public events, and the news media's coverage of those events.

While the fearful politics of the particular period in question have resonance deep in the American past, as well as more recently, the situation of Washington, D.C., in 2002, was less deeply rooted. At the time of the shootings, the capital region was very far away from its situation as a relatively small population and media center. In the half-century since World War II, Washington had come to rival New York as a base for news reporters. These circumstances meant that while a relatively similar shooting in Ohio might go ignored by most national reporters and be carried by their news outlets in a national wrap-up, the story of the Washington snipers was carefully watched in the District and broadcast across the world.

Technologically, the period also proved quite distinct. Radio and television had challenged print media for many years, but the preceding decade had seen evolve three full-fledged, cable-based, twenty-four-hour news networks-CNN, FOX News, and MSNBC-as well as a business network, CNBC. For our purposes, this produced two very significant changes: the news cycle accelerated greatly as these cable networks showed their insatiable appetite for new information, and the press relied increasingly on images instead of words.

Together, these changes vastly altered the situation that had prevailed just a few years before, at the close of the twentieth century. The use of images put a premium on emotion that words would find hard to match. Secondly, cable news, to keep its viewers, had to make its fare constantly newsworthy. This encouraged more scoops, as people in the news business call the situation when one reporter or news outlet has a story before others do. But the situation also led to more hyping of the available news when what legitimately might be called a scoop was not available. Together, these tendencies raised the tempo and tenor of reporting. Yet even this situation would not remain stable in the period after 2002, as Internet-distributed news became independent of the established print and electronic news outlets. In 2002, blogging was still in its infancy and most news reported live on the Internet was simply an accelerated version of material already or soon to be in print or on television. The opinions of ordinary individuals were not regarded as news. Within two years, even what constituted "the media" had evolved to include an unfettered, vast element of Web-based self-expression, much of which was not at all vetted by editors and publishers. Even the outpouring by self-appointed purveyors of information and opinion was coming to be considered news. Though keyed much more to the word than to the image, this new world allowed a wider array of publications, both creative and histrionic. And even though back in October 2002, these changes still were somewhere in the future, it nevertheless was the case that the media world of that date was more emotional and competitive than it had been before, and the effect was to discourage restraint much more so than when print and television networks dominated news delivery.

* * *

While analysts from many disciplines and backgrounds have examined the press for its political bias (as detailed extensively in the bibliographical essay of this book), many media scholars in the academy have systematically broadened the discussion by mapping a broad network of assumptions that have shaped the press, and have developed the notion of "framing" stories. In this version of bias, "framing" is not deliberate but rather results from other tendencies, like reporters' growing professionalism, an event orientation that characterizes most news reports, a reliance by reporters on official sources for the bulk of their information, and much more. Thus, media experts veer away from seeing political bias as a primary motivation for the workaday members of the press. Furthermore, while the experts admit that framing can yield a political point of view, or slant, they see it as a values inclination rather than the partisan content that so many in the public sphere despise-a perhaps subtle but nevertheless real difference, since one has to do with effects and the other with motivations. Thus, neither the motivations of the press nor its contents can generally be reduced to an expression of "politics" in the narrow, partisan sense of the term.

This study attempts to go beyond the usual scholarly efforts to comprehend journalistic framing by examining the coverage of an event that produced very little evidence of conscious politics as an influence on reporting. In fact, there was universal condemnation across the spectrum of these acts. A few commentators who wished to interpret these attacks as Muslim-inspired inserted a political coloration, but no one suggested that the media was sympathetic to these shootings. Thus, the efforts going into this study will deepen our understanding of the nonpolitical assumptions that operate to produce the reporting that exists. Nevertheless, despite this study's looking at the media in this apolitical atmosphere, a frame does emerge. Do the values here still produce, however unintended, a partisan edge? Even if not, the frame will contribute to our understanding of politics, as this coverage took place little more than a year after the cataclysmic political change ushered in by the bombings in New York and Washington. Inevitably, it mixes into political developments.

But why look for an apolitical set of assumptions at all? It seems worth pointing out a few of the characteristics that do grace the many memoirs produced by journalists. Such self-descriptions include many apolitical motivations. Journalists want to know what is happening and why, and what someone is going to do about it. Most reporters report that they are pumped up by having their curiosities satisfied. Further, they hope what they're curious about lands their words on page one or at the top of the broadcast.

Memoirs show that when chasing a big story, reporters fall back on a mix of the routine and the abnormal to do their work. The routine is just that-it's the routine, the series of things a reporter does when there isn't a story working and he or she is just nosing for news. Such things as visiting the police station one more time to leaf through the offense reports when there hasn't been anything there the previous six times he or she has looked. So in times like these, the reporter will go back and leaf through the offense reports to see if there is anything there that the police or authorities themselves might have missed, such as someone's seeing a car or a white van sitting outside a certain building, arousing suspicions, when later, someone else was shot at that same building and the police who checked out the car reported that it didn't seem like anything-but the reporter, piecing together some other fragmentary bit of information, hopes to find out that it was something after all.

Aside from being curious, journalists describe themselves as competitive, and that they're in the news business. Reporters want to be the first to report a story, to get the scoop on everyone else, because it puts them on the front page or at least the local section front, and that means they've done well-for today, anyway. Tomorrow is a different day. Their editors want them to get the scoop because they know they will have a better issue of the paper that day, which means they've done well that day, too. And the publishers of the paper want a better paper every day because it means they have done well-yes, they can sell more ads at good rates because circulation is good, but in the larger sense, the community's general interest in what's in the paper every day is running solid and strong, and that makes everyone at the paper feel he or she has done well.

Recollections of news gathering contest the dominant and opposite view of political bias and do encourage study of journalists' potential for apolitical reporting and attitudes. As the following chapters make clear, this study investigates the reporting and assumptions of the journalistic community in a case study, important and interesting in its own right, but also in a circumstance in which the apolitical views of this community might come to the fore. Moreover, this study endeavors to go beyond political bias to see other interests at work; as will become quite clear, even apolitical does not mean a lack of viewpoint.

In sum, this book seeks its niche and its value by providing a closely defined case study of the recent past, a critical period because in part we still live within its politics. Understanding the media and how they worked during such a critical period can allow contemporaries to grasp the present and perhaps improve the future at a time when the United States is conflicted about its own direction. Ironically, choosing a nonpolitical topic in these politicized times gives even greater insights into the fundamental assumptions of the press. Eliminating political motives leaves, I assert, a layer of uncontested frames of thinking that underlie all reporting.

To evaluate the material in the media assumes that the media are not simply a mirror of events. Despite the oft-stated and yet abstract goal of journalism to record simply the facts, such is patently impossible given that a news story must be extracted from and yet constructed with the multitude of facts available. But this study delves deeper to inquire about patterns of information that the press was able to extract from the events.

Here the issue becomes thorny. Customarily, what historians have done is to examine the press coverage of a particular event, or series of events, and compare it to a "true" narrative that has been constructed with the benefit of hindsight. Thus, scholars may designate the press as accurate or sensationalistic, or they may deliver some similar assessment. The problem here is that an objective account is impossible. While it is always a problem to divine the most accurate account, this case was particularly difficult because the press could ascertain little or no accurate information. With no evidence about the shooters, the press had little choice but to speculate or rely on others who speculated about the possibilities. And the other aspect of the story, the public reaction, cannot provide a measurable baseline because historians' main access to the wide public is through the press itself. Thus, it becomes very difficult to characterize reporting using the traditional approach, even if that approach might be meaningful in other circumstances. To avoid the role of a critic operating from his own assumptions, I turned to the collective response of another social organization, the elementary and secondary schools, and compared their views with those that emerged in the press. In this way, a comparison to a contemporary group whose knowledge roughly equaled that shown in the press, allows some evaluation of the media.

As we shall see, the main variable in the press coverage was the degree of fear portrayed-from pandemonium to indifference. Few occupied the latter ground, while there were varying degrees of the former. Although a rich literature exists in many fields on the subject of fear, historians and students of communication have generally approached it in a pragmatic manner, even eschewing the rather impressionistic categories like those employed here. Following the sources-that is, the media-proves difficult to do otherwise. Sorting the evidence into theoretical descriptions of psychological prototypes proved rather difficult, so I have developed working definitions of two intermediate groups of reactions that I have used throughout this volume. Less complacent than those articles that were indifferent to danger or found the odds of catastrophe very low were those that evinced the view that while perils were present, with precautions, life could continue much as usual. On the more anxious side were those articles that, while emphasizing fear, suggested the necessity of living life even as doom threatened. Still, these generated less anxiety than did accounts of those who hunkered down at home or who took precautions so severe as to magnify the threat far more than the ability to cope.

Evidently, these are loose, pragmatic descriptions. I have used them to underpin my analysis, but I did not let these ideational devices rigidly limit the sources. Clearly, at times the sources straddled categories, or even combined disparate ones. But these working definitions allowed a somewhat systematic approach to the news.

* * *

Chapters 1 through 3 analyze the press and reveal the way that a high level of fear dominated the press. Short of pandemonium, the press most often combined coping and doom in its reporting. Because the Washington Post put far more resources into covering this event than did any other outlet, and thus led the others in coverage, the paper deserves to be treated first and by itself, in chapter 1. The Post published hundreds of thousands of words in the twenty-three days of the event and developed a richly textured view of the fear permeating the region. At times, the Post's articles conjured a commentary about social cohesion to resist the panic gripping the area, but more often than not, the coverage treated the snipers as pure evil and as capable of inflicting great harm. Overall, readers would have been little reassured.


Excerpted from ON THE TRAIL OF THE D.C. SNIPER by JACK R. CENSER Copyright © 2010 by Jack R. Censer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Jack R. Censer is Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University. He is the coauthor, with Lynn Hunt, of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution.

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