New Book Discussion: On the Trail of the D.C. Sniper: Fear and the Media
Author Jack Censer, Dean, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, George Mason University; Commentator John Watson, Associate Professor, School of Communication, American University
For three weeks in October of 2002, the Washington, D.C. was terrorized by a series of random shootings that captured the attention of the entire nation. Throughout the metropolitan area, schools cancelled activities, everyday errands such as buying gasoline became feats of daring, and general fear pervaded public life. Jack Censer, author of On the Trail of the D.C. Sniper: Fear and the Media, traced the circumstances surrounding these events, questioning whether the media's focus on the story generated excessive fear in proportion to the danger posed by the sniper. More generally, raises issues about the proper roles and obligations of journalists and the news media.
Censer maintains that despite the horrific and unsettling nature of the attacks and the obligation of news outlets to convey that information, the media exaggerated the actual danger posed by the sniper and escalated attention and fear unnecessarily. He criticized a number of tactics used by reporters, from continuing to cover discredited stories to the use of unsettled body language, all of which fueled a greater sense of danger than may have been warranted.
A more tempered response to the attacks, Censer suggested, would have better served the public interest, and a "heightened sense of caution" would have been more appropriate than the chaotic and panicked response that emerged.
John Watson, a twenty-two year veteran of the journalism field as well as a professor of communication, disagreed with Censer's assessment. In his view, the ethical mission for journalists is "to convey information they can rely on for issues of importance," but the case of the D.C. sniper had no evident logic behind it. The attacks appeared random, and thus the public were equally in danger. Therefore, Watson concludes, "there was no responsible alternative frame except for one of fear."
Watson acknowledged that it is never benefical when the media become saturated with a particular story; without change or progress in the narrative, any fear or sense of alarm "just sits there." However, he noted, when a string of sporadic shootings occurs, the news media has an obligation to remain with the story. Moreover, the coverage of the D.C. sniper was as much about the government's inability to protect citizens as it was about the snipers themselves. Toning down the random, sporadic, and horrific nature of the shootings in order to avoid criticizing the police would be contrary to the journalistic mission.
By Lauren Demeter
Sonya Michel, Director, United States Studies