Published October 18, 2002
Because of its extraordinary combination of viciousness, randomness and audacity, the Beltway Sniper is one of the most compelling news stories of recent years. For this reason, it raises some important questions.
Are the all-news networks covering the story too much?
No. It is, after all, a series of events which has elicited comment from the president of the United States and members of both houses of Congress. It is a series of events that has led the governor of Maryland to ban the shooting of guns outdoors, so that hunters do not distract police and terrify bystanders. It is a series of events that has drawn the attention of the military, which is now assisting law enforcement personnel in the relaying of data.
It is not often that criminal behavior, no matter how violent or widespread, inspires such responses.
Besides, on every day of the coverage, each of the all-news networks has cut away from the story on a number of occasions to report on other people, other places.
Is there a chance the coverage will inspire copycat crimes?
Of course, but this is a risky argument to make against journalistic preoccupation with a particular story, and must be used carefully. Should a war not be covered because it might inspire warlike acts of violence in those who learn of it? Should a legislative decision not be covered because it might breed resentment in those opposed to it? The media cannot be put into the position of tailoring their coverage to the psychological aberrations of a tiny minority of their audience, not at the expense of informing the vast majority.
To what extent should the media be cooperating with law enforcement officials in the Beltway Sniper case?
To a greater extent than they seem willing. When facts are leaked to a reporter, as opposed to being provided openly to all reporters, then the recipient of the leak should discuss it with the chief of police or other authorities. If the chief can make a convincing argument for withholding the facts in question, if he can persuade the reporter that public knowledge of those facts might impede the investigation, then the reporter should not broadcast them, not write them.
No more mindless responses about the public’s "need" to know. The First Amendment neither states nor implies such a thing. What the public has a "need" for is not to get shot at by a sniper, and if a journalist can increase the odds of this happening by withholding some information for a while, he should do it.
If he does not, then he is not a journalist; he is an accomplice.
What should reporters do when and if the sniper is eventually caught?
This will be the time for restraint in coverage. The media should report the capture, report the identity of the assailant, report whatever they can learn about his motives. But once the Beltway Sniper is in custody, the media should go to all lengths possible not to turn a criminal into a celebrity; there should, in other words, be no requests---a la Katie Couric’s epistolary wining and dining of the Unabomber---for jailhouse interviews.
The Beltway Sniper is not a true celebrity, not yet, for he has neither a name nor a face. It is once he acquires these that true notoriety will descend on him, and the media must be careful not to let that notoriety transform itself into fame. If they do, if the media make the killer the subject of multiple profiles on Dateline, of multiple covers of Time and Newsweek, of multiple stories in Vanity Fair and other such outlets of perverse priority; if the media, in other words, make a killer into a hero, make his fate in captivity seem an almost enviable one, then the issue of a copycat becomes a matter of legitimate concern.
And this time, it would be the media’s fault.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .