- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Should we just crawl in our hidey-hole? The press would have us believe so.

Stuck without a conclusive story, many news organizations have become seduced by the drama of the sniper shootings, inflating coverage with overblown descriptions of a fearful and helpless public.

Washington has become "the killing fields" according to CNN, which offered a satellite photograph of the region plus a therapist's advice on "coping." Neighborhoods were "menaced" on Fox News, while CBS News described police "with guns drawn at rush hour."

In the tumult of commentary that followed news of the shooter's threats against children, Washingtonians were portrayed as ready to curl up in the fetal position.

Where is the line between responsibly informing people and unduly alarming them?

"It's a delicate balancing act, but I favor more coverage than less. Anything to create a more informed public," Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel said yesterday.

"You can argue against frightening material," he said. "But I think people can discern the threat level for themselves, to understand the odds. And the more information they have, the better."

Yet coverage that makes paranoia seem appropriate is counterproductive as well.

"Unfortunately, we must get used to unpleasant events in America. Our reaction is a test of a population's character," said David McIntyre of the Anser Institute, a Virginia research group specializing in homeland security.

"It's important not to minimize what's happened. But I'm concerned this has escalated into the 'big' story in the last 24 hours, emphasizing emotional rather than practical or reasonable aspects," Mr. McIntyre said.

"Where are the stories on neighborhood watch groups, or merchants looking after each other?" he asked. "If people just hole up, they lose. If they give in, they give in on their way of life."

He cites the Israeli public as a role model. "If there is a bus bombing there, you'll find them back on that bus line the next morning," Mr. McIntyre said.

While genuine news on the situation is at a premium, bombast is easy to come by.

The sniper story "could be told in a 20-minute span, yet news channels fill endless hours with it," said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "They do it with conjecture from sources and much pomp, which at best manufactures fear, and at worst dares the sniper."

It could encourage copycats, Mr. Felling said, and has diverted public attention from Iraq and the upcoming elections.

"The bottom line in this story is the financial bottom line," he said. "The sniper story is a gold mine, the SUV of reporting: It doesn't cost a lot more to produce and it pushes profit margins through the roof via the ratings boom."

Some news outlets see their coverage therapists and all as a public service.

"This is a difficult and tragic story," said Teya Ryan, executive vice president of CNN/U.S. "We're citizens, too, and we have colleagues in Washington. Let's not forget that absence of news can also be frightening. We respect the situation, and the public's need to know."

CNN, she said, tries "to watch our language."

"There's no need to hype this story."

MSNBC agrees.

"We're not running a tabloid channel here. We're not screaming and saying, 'Run for cover,'" said Mark Effron, MSNBC's vice president for live programming. "But we're not going to minimize or sugarcoat it, either."

The shootings "have caused anxiety in our community," said Dave Roberts, news director at CBS-affiliate WUSA, which offered viewers on-screen numbers of psychological hot lines.

"We have an obligation to give accurate news, and also provide a vehicle to help those impacted by these events," he said.

A WUSA poll found that 61 percent of its viewers said police "should not share sniper threats with the public." A CNN poll found 62 percent felt the sniper's specific threat to children should not have been released.

Many reporters were entranced by the theatrical potential of the shooting, badgering Montgomery County police Chief Charles A. Moose yesterday about conspiracies, terrorism and police failures. Some reporters trivialized the story altogether.

"The sniper story has been, dare I say it, invigorating," wrote Detroit Free Press columnist Susan Ager yesterday, characterizing it as "stimulating, energizing each new detail enlarges the mystery. A primitive part of us thrills to mystery."

An answer, she wrote "can be as comforting as hot chocolate," concluding that "we want to know the sniper. We want to figure him out."

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