Off Target: The News Media, Particularly Cable Channels, Relied Heavily on Profilers during the Sniper Coveragehj

By Smolkin, Rachel | American Journalism Review, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Off Target: The News Media, Particularly Cable Channels, Relied Heavily on Profilers during the Sniper Coveragehj


Smolkin, Rachel, American Journalism Review


But their speculation often turned out to be wildly inaccurate. Is there a better way to take advantage of their wisdom, or should they be used at all?

On the morning of October 3, local and national media seized on a gripping and terrifying story: five people dead near Washington, D.C., picked off seemingly at random, in the same region where last year a plane slammed into the Pentagon and mysterious anthrax attacks felled two postal workers. Over the next three weeks, the death toll would mount to 10.

Confronting an unprecedented news story a panicked public and a dearth of hard information from law enforcement officials, 24-hour cable news channels and other media outlets filled time and space with a parade of profilers, criminologists, forensic specialists and former detectives. In theory these designated "experts" could educate and perhaps even reassure the public by providing context and perspective about the unknown sniper. The commentators could divulge statistics, discuss similar episodes and assess the unfolding case based on their own experience.

But the reality was less constructive. Many profilers and pundits, prodded by interviewers, plunged into a din of speculation, much of it wrong. Certainly no one predicted the eventual suspects would be two black men, the elder, John Allen Muhammad, 41, a father figure to the younger, John Lee Malvo, 17. No one envisioned Malvo as a Jamaican immigrant or Muhammad as a drifter born in Louisiana--many of the profilers said they were local. Nobody anticipated that SWAT teams would apprehend the unemployed, homeless pair asleep in their blue Chevy Caprice. Far from sharpening the public's comprehension, the incessant speculation may have exacerbated people's confusion and frustration--and, perhaps, hampered the search for the snipers.

At times, the predictions appeared as haphazard as the selection of victims. "He's probably Caucasian. He's probably in his 30s," forensic psychologist N.G. Berrill told ABC on October 8.

Bo Dietl, a retired New York City homicide detective and chairman of a security and investigations company, said he believed two white teenagers, brainwashed by video games, had styled themselves after Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. "There's probably two skinny kids out there who have made a pact with each other," Dietl told the New York Times. James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminal justice professor and frequent television commentator, said in the same October 16 article: "It's probably some introverted guy living by himself, working by himself, living out the ultimate fantasy."

Fox's colleague Jack Levin, a criminologist and director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern, told Larry King on October 18, during one of six appearances on King's show: "He's probably a middle-aged guy... Truth is, he has other responsibilities in his life. He may be married. He may be playing with his children, watching football on Sunday. Or he may have a part-time job."

Robert Ressler, a former FBI profiler in the formative years of the FBI's behavioral science unit, told CNN's King that night: "It was clear that this individual and, in my opinion, these individuals, were going to stay in the major metropolitan Washington area, which tells me that they're residents. These people are long-term residents."

And Pat Brown, a self-taught criminal profiler, author and ubiquitous television presence during the sniper case, told CBS on October 22: "I do believe he's working between Montgomery County, Maryland, and Spotsylvania, Virginia. I think those are his two points. I think he lives in one location, possibly works in the other or has a relative down in the other one.... I have surmised from the beginning that he probably lives...somewhere about three miles from the Olney, Maryland, area."

Less than 48 hours later, SWAT teams descended on a sleeping Muhammad and Malvo at a rest stop outside Frederick, Maryland, near the West Virginia border. …

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