Jack R. Censer


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

Cover Interview of April 11, 2010


I hope this work will contribute to three contextual areas: understanding the economic/career motivations of journalists, evaluating the media by standards derived from its period, and discovering a chronological history of fear.

Such evaluation of the media from several angles can lead to a number of other observations.  For example, the book scrutinizes separately the television opinion shows which one might hypothesize would be most likely to spread fear.  I found, however, that this was generally not the case.  In fact, hosts like Chris Matthews on Hardball evinced virtually no interest in the sniper story.

The opinion press also followed the lead of the rest of the media in asserting that the snipers were not political terrorists.  Sean Hannity, the one journalist who suspected terrorism, dropped that tack after several of his own guests demurred.  It remains unclear why the opinion press rather unexpectedly remained relatively loath to raise the decibel level.  Perhaps, that so many broadcasts originated from outside the Washington reduced anxiety on the subject.

In describing the printed press, I sampled the regional, national, and international printed press in an effort to understand not only the coverage by the press but also to contribute to the debate and discussion over nationalism and globalism.

While I expected that different areas of the country would appropriate the story to meet their own concerns, the sample I used (from New York, Houston, Chicago, and San Francisco) did little more than occasionally point out matters consistent with the concerns of the paper.

One theme somewhat developed was the way that this incident showed the need for greater gun control.  But most reporting followed the line laid down by the local papers in the Washington region.

This same lack of independence was even more evident in the international press from France, England, South Africa, and India that I surveyed. Likely, the explanation here is the reverse of that of the opinion shows: most journalists who covered this story, regardless of their home paper, did so through correspondents based in Washington. These results might underline the unconscious way that the temper of a region affects reporting.

© 2010 Jack Censer