Published October 29, 2002
It's difficult to know how much coverage is too much coverage when it comes to covering the deadly sniper shootings around Washington, D.C. Personally, I can do without the writer from Playboy magazine who reportedly has been assigned to cover the story. But, by anybody's definition, the story of the serial sniper fits the definition of news: something important, timely and compelling and happening in a prominent place (our nation's capital). It even has another characteristic of news: proximity. It feels close by, even if it isn't geographically, because it has been covered so heavily in the 24-hour live-news environment that can link us all.
Washington, D.C., area residents are scared for themselves, and for their children, who have not been allowed outside while attending school for two weeks. And, particularly with the release of photos and personal information about the latest victim, FBI analyst Linda Franklin who was murdered standing next to her husband in a Home Depot parking lot, many Americans can identify with Washingtonians' sheer terror at going about their daily suburban lives and fearing they may be risking their lives by doing so.
The tough calls - it seems to me - will be for the national news media, the broadcast and cable news networks and national newspapers and magazines, in the coming days - and, God forbid, weeks - if the killer is not caught or decides to stop for awhile. With a new poll by Newsweek magazine (which has the "Tarot Card Killer" on the cover this week) showing 47 percent of Americans being concerned about someone in their family being a sniper victim, with 42 percent having similar concerns about a terrorist, all of us in the national media, TV and print, have to be careful to balance covering an extremely compelling and frightening story against scaring people to death.
Media coverage cuts both ways. Information being provided through the media may help the public aid the police in catching the killer. But, tragically, the killer may be altering his behavior to fit the coverage, as many believe he did in shooting a 13-year-old boy after authorities and news accounts noted that children had not been among his victims.
For the national news media, it seems to me, the challenge is when to cut away from the story if the case goes unsolved for days or even weeks. We need to avert our gaze from time to time, however riveted viewers and readers may be, from the experts and real-life Fear Factor to cover other important stories. By our choices in coverage, especially when there's nothing new to report on the sniper case, we will be letting people know that there's something else going on in the world and that, odds are, the Washington, D.C., sniper is not coming to your own door. Did the providing of Federal government surveillance equipment to hunt the sniper deserve to lead the national network news this week ahead of President Bush's signing of a Congressional authorization of use of force against Iraq? Probably, if you figure that the lead is what's new and what's most compelling. But does the "Tarot Card Killer" trump war in Iraq? Probably not.