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On the Trail of the D.C. Sniper

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

JACK R. CENSER
with the assistance of William Miller
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 264
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zwd5h
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  • Book Info
    On the Trail of the D.C. Sniper
    Book Description:

    For a month in the fall of 2002, a series of sniper attacks suddenly dominated the headlines in the nation's capital. Beginning in the Washington suburbs, these crimes eventually stretched over one hundred miles along I-95 to Richmond. More than a thousand law officers would pursue the perpetrators-an enormous number for one case. The number of reporters covering the story, however, was even greater.On the Trail of the D.C. Sniperuses the remarkable events of that October to explore the shifting character of journalism as it entered the twenty-first century and to question how this change in the way news is gathered and reported impacted the events it covered.

    Because of its political significance, Washington, D.C., although not a huge population center, is home to an international news corps rivaling that of London or New York. The sniper story thus gained unusually broad media coverage. These events also coincided with the rise of cable network news, meaning that the story would be delivered through a greatly accelerated news cycle. Continuous coverage on television meant a more intense race for scoops; when a major development wasn't available, lesser incidents were sometimes played up in an attempt to maintain the sense of an always unfolding story.

    Jack Censer looks at the atmosphere of heightened anxiety in which this killing spree occurred-coming only a year after the 9/11 attacks, as well as the unsolved anthrax scare centered in the D.C. area-and asks if the press, by intensifying its focus, also intensified the sense of fear.To bring in another perspective, Censer looks closely at the elementary and secondary schools in the area, comparing their experience of the threat with the press's perception, and presentation, of it. In most cases, school officials chose a course of precaution in which life could carry on, rather than one of hypervigilance and lockdowns.

    Although it is widely thought that journalists have strong political and commercial biases, Censer reveals that in this case the press was motivated, above all, by the creation of a gripping story to evoke emotion from its audience. One of the most detailed studies yet published of how the press follows a story in the twenty-four-hour news era, this book provides a window on post-9/11 anxiety and the relationship between those fears, public events, and the news media.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-2899-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xx)

    The murder of James D. Martin in the late afternoon of October2, 2002, at a grocery story parking lot in Montgomery County, Maryland, and an errant shot through the window of a neighboring store minutes earlier, went largely unremarked in the media. However, the gunning down nearby of four more people the following morning soon attracted attention. By the time a fifth person was shot on October 3, near the border between Maryland and the District of Columbia, police resources had been focused–an effort that only increased during the next twenty-one days, before the capture of the culprits less...

  5. PROLOGUE
    (pp. 1-20)

    It was Wednesday, October 2, 2002, just after 6 p.m., and James D. Martin was on his way home from his job with the federal government. He worked as a program analyst at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, and lived in Wheaton, places located about ten miles apart in the closer-in suburbs of Washington, D.C. Five miles from home, Martin stopped at a Shoppers Food Warehouse in Glenmont to pick up a few things. His wife, Billie, and eleven-year-old son, Ben, waited for him at their house.¹

    Martin parked his 1990 Mazda pickup in...

  6. ONE The Washington Post and the Sniper
    (pp. 21-43)

    On October 25, 2002, on the day after the arrests of John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo,Washington Postcolumnist Marjorie Williams¹ began her op-ed piece with these words: “Now that two solid suspects are in custody for the killings that have dominated the region for the past three weeks, we may hope to recapture our everyday sense of safety. It is less obvious whether we can retrieve our dignity so fast.” Noting that she did not fault “any of those who took precautions to protect themselves or their loved ones,” Williams charged: “Over the past week, our public reactions...

  7. TWO Continuous Coverage
    (pp. 44-92)

    At the height of the events related to the snipers, there seemingly were more journalists reporting on the events than there were police personnel investigating them. And the reporters, their editors, and their photographers turned out an inexhaustible supply of words, images, and sounds to explain what was occurring. In doing so, these media representatives constructed a contemporaneous narrative of the events. This narrative both contained and embellished a growing sense of mystery and wariness. In many regards, this was axiomatic, given that the identity or identities of the shooter or shooters were not known and what could be reported...

  8. THREE The Nation and the World
    (pp. 93-135)

    Despite the prominence of theWashington Postand television wall-to-wall broadcasts, numerous other purveyors of information interested themselves in Washington’s sniper events. In fact, although numbers remain uncertain, there likely were more journalists than police officers directly reporting on and investigating the event. Any attempt to read all of these periodicals and electronic media, much less systematically discuss them, must inevitably founder. Consequently, this study takes a sounding, somewhat selected, of the vast sea of material containing many currents and uncounted depths of backwaters.

    This chapter explores the journalistic efforts, with a section focused on outlets mainly interested in the...

  9. FOUR The Journalists’ Ordeal
    (pp. 136-177)

    About 6 o’clock on the morning of October 24, 2002,Washington Postreporter Jamie Stockwell received a call at home from her editor. She had left the police task force headquarters only four hours earlier with information that included the names of two suspects. Now, she learned the two men had been apprehended. Stockwell both breathed a sigh of relief and set to work. The morning’s beautiful colors excited her, a sense that was heightened as she assumed those charged were the snipers. Although she still had work to do, it would be as a wrap-up. A long, exciting, tiring,...

  10. FIVE The Schools and the Sniper
    (pp. 178-203)

    Other than law enforcement and the media, no institution within the affected area had to deal more with the impact of the snipers than did the public school systems. Because schools are entrusted with the safety and security of students, the officials who manage them had to, in these circumstances, consider the shootings and all their implications for the safety and well-being of the students and the school employees. Moreover, from the beginning, the Montgomery County authorities noted the safety of the schools as a bellwether of the general climate of the area. Further pushing educational institutions to the forefront...

  11. CONCLUSION
    (pp. 205-220)

    A small army of journalists narrated the police chase and public response over that long October of 2002. These scribes produced millions of words that were avidly consumed by many millions of people. The citizens of the Washington region, unlike the politicians who usually dominate, occupied the world’s stage.

    Chronologically, what people witnessed was a story that seemingly came out of nowhere. Although Malvo and Muhammad had started their rampage long before October 2 and perhaps had targeted the Washington area from the very beginning, the event burst on the scene rather unexpectedly. At first, the press hesitated but then...

  12. Primary Sources
    (pp. 221-224)
  13. Bibliographical Essay
    (pp. 225-230)

    The introduction to this book explains the approach, commonly labeled “framing,” adopted in this study. Framing is designed to examine the assumptions in the press in a much broader perspective than that of politics. In this essay, I add to this work by providing a retrospective review of those studies, so prevalent and dominant outside universities, which characterize in a contrary way the press as politicized, either as partisan, ideological, or both. Further, that same literature proposes or assumes an unbiased press to replace the flawed one we have. The purpose here is to help the reader understand the context...

  14. Index
    (pp. 231-243)