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Framing the Sniper Attacks

Professor looks at the role of the press in the way history is created

By Tara Laskowski

In October 2002, filling up a gas tank or loading groceries into the car brought fear and unease to many residents of the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area. For three weeks, people were constantly reminded in newspapers, on television, and on radio stations of the sniper attacks that left 10 people dead and 3 others injured in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia.

The odds may have been much against one's becoming a victim, but with pages and pages and hours and hours of coverage, the danger seemed more possible. The media broke in on soap operas and prime time sitcoms. Newspapers devoted most of their pages to the story. Fear was prevalent.

The media coverage of the sniper attacks still interests Department of History and Art History Chair Jack Censer long after John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested and charged with the crime. For Censer, a historian of the press who is concerned with how stories are framed, the sniper coverage provides an excellent opportunity to look at the media in an apolitical context. He isn't interested in the police methods used or the killers' backgrounds. He is interested in something more difficult to define—the way the press chose to report the story and what that choice means in a historical and social context.

Focusing on the concept of fear, Censer has looked at dozens of newspapers and television stations that covered the attacks during those 23 days. He also has interviewed more than 75 people, including Michael Ruane and Sari Horowitz of the Washington Post who wrote a comprehensive book about the attacks, Sniper: Inside the Hunt for the Killers Who Terrorized the Nation. He then devised a spectrum of possible reactions to the sniper killings. On one end was total pandemonium, in which people were so terrified they wouldn't leave their homes; on the other end was caution, in which people were a little fearful but reasoned that the odds were good they would be safe. Using this spectrum, Censer realized that the press tended to lean toward the more fearful reaction.

"My findings show that the press, in a world of choices, chose fear," says Censer. "They were pretty interested in interviewing people who were scared, although their purpose at the time may not have been clear to them."

To balance his research, Censer also studied the way that area school districts reacted to the attacks. Using data from the schools, such as phone logs and memos from the Montgomery County Public Schools, Censer analyzed how the schools gathered and distributed information during the three weeks and found that the school tried to project a sense of safety by staying open throughout the attacks.

"They were the complete opposite of the press," says Censer. "While the press seemed to emphasize the fear, the schools concentrated on deemphasizing it, on making life bearable. I am not saying that one is right because no one can say what a reasonable reaction to such a situation is, but I do want to look at what each did and the reasons for it."

To come to any conclusion, Censer has had to do some painstaking research. Because many television stations devoted hours of continuous coverage to the attacks, Censer has had to turn to technology for the complete picture. He subscribed to Shadow TV, a service that provides all-digital continuous access to live and archived television content via the web. From Shadow TV, Censer obtained all the continuous coverage of the sniper attacks as broadcast on five major channels in the Washington area.

"For historians, this technology is the closest thing we have to time travel," says Censer. It has allowed him to see when the stations chose to air or not air commercials and discrepancies among the stations' news reports. It also has let him see the anxiety on reporters' faces as they reported live.

"The continuous coverage has been especially fascinating to me because it's incredibly boring on one level—sometimes nothing new would happen for hours—but it also creates a sense of dread because there was no progress."

Censer will publish his findings in a book in which he hopes go beyond what he calls the "simplistic" question of whether the press is good or bad.

"Rather than ask the question that many recent books analyzing the press seem to ask, 'Is the press biased?' I want to ask, 'What does it do?'" In the end, Censer feels, it is this question that will prove more valuable to understanding the way media works and its place in creating history.


Jack Censer

Jack Censer