Jack R. Censer


On his book On the Trail of the D.C. Sniper: Fear and the Media

Cover Interview of April 11, 2010

In a nutshell

On the Trail of the D.C. Sniper tells the story of the press coverage of the deeds of John Muhammad and Lee Malvo as they traversed the Washington D.C. area in October 2002.

Honing in on twenty-three days permits a tightly focused analysis of the kaleidoscope of information and opinions provided by the media.

To understand this coverage, the book also compares it to the sniper as imagined by major school systems responding to the threat.

In a nutshell, the press embraced fear while the schools turned toward coping.  This contrast does not prove who was right but instead reveals the underlying structures of press and schools which then led and still leads toward a particular viewpoint.  The impact of a media inclined to propagate fearful reporting can be problematic in a nation in which fear is so casually used to political and commercial advantage.

The narrative story of the reporting perhaps provides even more unexpected results than the book’s main conclusion.  Following journalists who surveyed this carnage reveals more vulnerable professionals than appear in either movies or the writings of critics.  The image of the schools wrestling with that crisis, on the other hand, shows decisions that are rarely in the spotlight.

Despite the general orientation of the press, differences—some surprising—turn up in this book.  Some of them relate to the variety of the media I include—regional, national, and international; radio; local and cable television; and opinion and news shows.