Sniper Reporting: What's the Media to Do?

The Beltway Sniper at times seems to do exactly what the media and experts say he won't, leading some to believe he reacts to news coverage before picking out his next target.

And that has some wondering what, if anything, the growing number of reporters and news outlets devoted to the story can or should do differently as they cover the case.

Just days after officials said the area's children were safe in their classrooms, the sniper shot a 13-year-old boy in Bowie, Md., on his way into school. He then struck at a busy Home Depot parking lot in Fairfax County, after news reports saying previous shootings had taken place in more remote locations.

And until Saturday night, the media had repeatedly noted the sniper struck only during the weekdays. Then came the shooting of a 37-year-old man in a steakhouse parking lot in Ashland, Va.

While experts disagree about the gunman's specific motives, they are convinced the sniper closely follows media reports about the chaos he's creating.

"You can count on him to keep repeating what he's doing … he enjoys the chaos he's created," said forensic pathologist Michael Baden. "It's safe to say he's getting emboldened, he's proceeding as he sees fit."

So what's the media to do?

"I think prudence demands that we start speculating a lot less than we have been, stick to facts, not opinions," said Eric Burns, a media analyst and host of Fox News Watch.

Burns said he understood the media's desire to "connect the dots" in the case, but noted "the difference between reporting on the past and predicting the future." He also said he did not think the sniper was necessarily reacting to news reports.

"I don't think anything we say about what the sniper has done … is likely to provoke him. And if it does, I don't think there's much journalists can do about it, because they have to report what's happened, especially on a case of this magnitude."

Law enforcement experts agreed.

"Let's play his game right now," said retired New York detective Joe Cardinale. "I'd just say contain it and give out the information that needs to be given out."