Television Stretches Sniper Coverage; Stations Driven by Strong ratings.(NATION)(ON MEDIA)

Article excerpt

Byline: Jennifer Harper, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The competitive crush of print and broadcast media intent on the sniper story has come with a price.

In many cases, journalists are all dressed up with nowhere to go: There is limited or conflicting information and a public demanding answers.

News sense and credibility have suffered as the media seek the story - any story. Tom Rosensteil of the Project for Excellence in Journalism has called CNN, MSNBC and Fox News "irresponsible" for offering speculation rather than straight-ahead news coverage.

The sniper story "could be told in a 20-minute span, yet news channels fill endless hours with it," said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "They do it with conjecture from sources and much pomp."

No one wants to miss the ratings boat. And no one has.

Compared to the average numbers of viewers, ratings in the last week are up as much as 102 percent at Fox and 98 percent at MSNBC. Viewers have doubled at CNN.

"There's been a lot of complaining about the saturation coverage given to the killings," wrote the Chicago Sun Times' Richard Roeper yesterday. "But it would be more accurate to say that a small fraction of the media machine, i.e., the cable news channels, has gone all-sniper-all-the-time, while the mainstream outlets have treated it for what it is - a huge and terrible domestic story that none of us will ever forget, but not World War III."

Still, both local and national news organizations have gotten edgy enough to violate basic journalistic ethics.

At 10:34 a.m. Tuesday, for example, CNN announced that bus driver Conrad Johnson had died of his wounds. Two Washington stations - ABC affiliate WJLA-TV and Fox affiliate WTTG-TV - went with the report, crafting their own versions.

Just minutes later, a Suburban Hospital spokeswoman asked reporters to hold the information because some of the victim's family members had not been notified. …