Lessons the media must learn from the sniper case

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Three forces played significant roles in hunting the sniper killers – the police, the public, and the press. The relationship between the police and the press is the most intriguing.

In the early days of the investigation, the police were frustrated, and literally clueless, as they sought the perpetrator, or perpetrators, of hideous random killings without a common thread, without clear motives, and with neither ransom demands nor political message.

Charles Moose, the police chief of Montgomery County, Md., soon became the most frequent spokesman on television for the various law enforcement agencies involved. Given the outcome of the chase, which attracted journalists from around the world, he has become a media star whose role (surely to be offered to Denzel Washington?) will be reenacted in film and TV docudramas.

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Chief Moose has a folksy way of putting things and this, combined with his terse and uncommunicative briefings, may have initially conveyed the impression that the police were floundering. In fact, Moose is a sharp and experienced policeman. Further, although some critics accused him of hogging the investigation and holding off the FBI, Moose had swiftly called for federal expertise and soon had a task force of more than a thousand federal and local investigators working under his command.

With little to go on in the first days of the investigation, Moose sought the cooperation of the public. The response was a deluge of tips and scraps of information. Some were useless, hence the goose chase after a white van. Some were invented. Some were even from cranks falsely laying claim to the crimes committed. Some, like those from the heroes who identified the Chevrolet Caprice at a highway rest stop, were immensely important.

But the relationship between police and press was even more significant. The press, particularly television, became the instrument for communicating Moose's carefully crafted, sometimes cryptic, messages to the snipers. Meanwhile the press, particularly the cable TV channels, came under fire for publicizing details that could have compromised the investigation.

Some talking-head "experts," brought in to fill air time, speculated what dire consequences would befall the snipers if they turned themselves in, or whether the police would first promise ransom money, then renege and seize the suspects when they arrived to pick it up. If the suspects were watching, it seemed hardly likely it would encourage them to negotiate.

Editors of some newspapers said they chose not to publish details they thought would be counterproductive to the investigation.

The major TV networks, given the limited windows for their news broadcasts, were also inclined to sift, edit, and compress. But round-the-clock cable channels like CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, confronted by strong audience demand, elected to run and rerun every scrap of available footage, then fill in the gaps with commentators whose conjecture and speculation was sometimes misleading and potentially harmful.

Thus police and press were pitted in a traditional tug of war between officials who wanted to control the flow of information, and use the media for their own ends on one hand, and on the other, reporters, whose whole mission in life is to find out things that bureaucrats don't want to tell them, and their editors who must decide how much of the reporters' raw material should be published.

The public, particularly in the Washington area, demanded the fullest coverage of a threat to their well-being. At very least, they were greatly inconvenienced by roadblocks and traffic jams. At very worst, their lives were threatened. The sniper suspects clearly were following the conduct of the hunt for them in newspapers, on radio, or on television, and were conditioning their communications with police in response to that coverage.

The police, in their cat-and-mouse game with the snipers, were more concerned with using the press as a tool in the investigation, rather than providing press and public with full disclosure about their operations.

All this went on in a life-and-death situation, where a misjudgment could have caused more fatalities, or let the perpetrators slip away.

The press, charged with eliciting all the information possible from cagey law-enforcement officials, was challenged to determine what could responsibly be published or aired, and what could not.

The lesson for the media in all this when covering such tragedies is to exercise even more care treading the delicate balance between providing facts for a news-hungry audience versus speculation that might help the criminals.

• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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