As sniper hunt grows, role of media blurs

Police scold reporters for 'interference,' but thank them for publicizing citizen hot line.

When an angry Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose railed against media "interference" in the case of the D.C.-area sniper Wednesday, he touched off a new round of discussion in an age-old debate: whether the media help or hinder in such highly charged investigations.

The police often have a love-hate relationship with the media, which was evident when Chief Moose, moments later, thanked news outlets for publicizing the citizen-tip hot line, a key part of the case.

News outlets aren't always known for covering crime in proportion to its occurence, or even tastefully. Yet the crimebusting success of shows like "America's Most Wanted" highlights the media's power to educate, inform, and even break cases.

"It's a mixed bag. The media can be helpful, and the media can be hurtful – and usually it's both, especially when a killer is on the loose," says Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.

In the D.C. case, the local CBS affiliate, WUSA, Channel 9, uncovered the fact that police had found a note – scrawled on a tarot card – near the scene of Monday's shooting. It read, "Dear Policeman, I am God."

That set off Moose, who said at yesterday's press conference, "I ask my community, do you want the police department to work the case or do you want Channel 9 to work the case? Let me know because there is no room, in my mind, for both of us."

Media watchers don't agree on what effect such information will have on the case or the public.

Some defend Channel 9's report, saying it simply passed along information from police insiders. Channel 9 says those sources wanted the public to have more information.

Indeed, the tarot-card clue could help the public identify someone with an interest in such cards.

Yet ultimately, the report isn't educational or particularly useful. "This is not the kind of information that will help citizens avoid being victimized," says Professor Levin, who directs the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict. And there's the risk that the killer or killers will see details of the case in the media – and alter their methods in order to avoid detection.

That instant playback and news-saturation phenomenon is relatively new.

Two decades ago, stories like the one unfolding in Maryland and its environs would have been important on the local level, but in the absence of the cable news channels, would not have received as much attention nationally. Now reporters are constantly looking for information and updates on big stories.

And journalists sometimes try to advance the story themselves – especially when there's no new news – sometimes reaching new levels of aggressiveness.

A 'Hannibal Lecter' culture

Overall, there is evidence that over the past 20 years the media and society have become more focused on murderers and the details of their lives.

Consider that during the 1970s, People magazine featured only one murderer on its cover – but during the late '80s and the '90s, it gave that prominent play to dozens of killers.

And there's the proliferation of murderer trading cards and calendars, for instance, as well as the current No. 1 box-office ranking of "Red Dragon," a movie that features serial-killer genius Hannibal Lecter.

Against that backdrop comes the question of how the media should cover a major event like the sniper attacks. With the public clamoring for details – for their safety and to feed their curiosity – news outlets are trying to balance informing the country with avoiding spreading fear, inspiring copycats, and glorifying criminals.

"This is obviously a very important story, especially here in Washington, where people feel fearful because it's such a random event," says Sean Aday, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. "No matter how you report a story like this, it is in essence scary."

And those who work in the news say they are clear on their job and their ability to self-police.

"We are certainly not going to speculate or add fuel to the anxiety, because we all live in this community as well," says David Roberts, vice president for news at Channel 9.

Experts differ on whether the media play a role in promoting copycat killings – giving people ideas for violence.

But the media's influence on the original killer's mental state is more clear. Criminologists say the current murderer, for example, likely gets a high from all the attention and could also be spurred into action if he feels he's falling off the radar of the media and the public.

What isn't happening so far is a glorifying of the sniper, observers say. News coverage is generally balancing information about the killer and the victims, say observers, another plus on the media's scorecard.

"They've also succeed on that front by not romanticizing the killer – not painting him as Hannibal Lecter, a person worthy of both respect and contempt," says Matthew Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

But Levin, who did the People magazine research, wonders if that will still be the case when the sniper's identity is revealed. He says the media have generally responded well so far, but "what will happen later is more important in determining whether the media can be faulted for the way it covered the story."

After the case is solved...

Once the case is solved, the media should show restraint and not "delve into every detail of the killer's life, making him out to be a victim," he says.

Broadcasters are willing to address the issue, but they also bring it back around to the public's appetite, giving rise to a chicken-and-egg debate over which comes first, the public demand or the media supply.

"I don't think we're trying to make heroes out of any of these people when we delve into their lives. I think there's a fascination," says Mark Effron, vice president of news programming for MSNBC.

"I mean why did the latest Hannibal Lecter movie do [about] $30 million this last weekend?" he says. "There is a fascination with it. We just have to make sure that we're reporting it accurately. I know there are millions of us sitting around thinking what kind of person would do this?"

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