Jack R. Censer


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

Cover Interview of April 11, 2010

A close-up

To gain a sense of the immediacy of coverage, turn to page 53 to begin a sample of the panicky reporting when the sniper was on the loose.

These pages detail the first hour of television coverage of a shooting on October 7, 2002.  After the initial six murders on October 2 and 3, an eerie calm had settled over the metropolitan area that was later somewhat disrupted on October 5 when a woman was wounded south of the city in Virginia.  Already on October 4, Charles Moose, chief of police for Montgomery County and head of the task force, had assured the public that children were safe in school.  In this context the October 7 shooting of eighth-grader Iran Brown at Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Maryland, would, of course, prove quite unsettling.

Nothing about the press coverage mitigated the anxiety that would have normally occurred over this shooting.  In fact, following the attack at 8:09 A.M., the press scrambled exceptionally hard to get reporters into place.  As news teams consolidated, the broadcasts, including anchors and reporters, developed a style in which coverage moved from source to source in a staccato rhythm that created anticipation and fed worry.  The frenetic style of the production overwhelmed the customary calm of the anchors.  In the most extreme case, one anchor added to the unease.  Insightful and highly experienced Mike Buchanan fidgeted, adjusting his tie and holding his head, as in pain.  He showed his exasperation with the investigation.  In yet another case, the on-site reporter, with a crack in his voice, described the chaos as parents showed up to pick up their kids.

All this was exacerbated by an announcement on the local FOX station that six or seven police cars were heading off to another shooting.  Seen from the camera on a helicopter, a speeding police convoy proceeded to a Wal-Mart only a couple of minutes away.  FOX threw doubt on the story right away, but only ten minutes later could watchers on the NBC affiliate breathe a sigh of relief.  Still those watching the ABC station could find a new cause for fear.  Even as FOX changed its story, ABC reported not one but two shootings.  Then ABC put up a map labeled “New Shootings.”  Finally, twelve minutes after the initial retraction, ABC abandoned this tack.  Of course, the reports returned to Tasker which was still awash with nervous parents extracting their children from the school.  After continuing several more hours, finally the defeated channels had to give up on any progress in the case.