Academic journal article Journalism History

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

Academic journal article Journalism History

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

Article excerpt

Censer, Jack. On the Trail of the D.C. Sniper: Fear and the Media. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010. 243 pp. $29.95.

Historians long have wrestled with one of journalism's most vexing questions: Do journalists reflect or create public fear? The historical dimension is well traced by Lloyd Chiasson, Jr. and the contributors to his 1995 anthology, The Press in Times of Crisis. Starting with the American Revolution, the press' framing of fear continued through the Civil War, the stock market crash, Joseph McCarthy, and the late twentieth-century environmental crisis.

Jack Censer now updates the question through a review of a sniper tragedy that riveted the nation's capital in October 2002. He tends to argue that news media do promote fear. While somewhat short of needed substance, the book masterfully delves the event's print and broadcast reportage and stays true to its goal of a "case study that allows a very detailed understanding of the press in action."

Censer is the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University. His five chapters examine news coverage of seventeen print and thirteen electronic media, and he also draws from follow-up interviews with nearly sixty reporters and editors. He concludes that the event's "main variable" was the degree to which reporters, who had no clues as to the identities of the snipers, had portrayed fear. While few news media had been indifferent, several had stirred "varying degrees" of "pandemonium."

The book excels as perhaps the best play-by-play account of the 2002 D.C.-area rampage. Starting with the first sniping at a suburban grocery store, the press "combined coping and doom" until the arrest of two suspects at a highway rest stop. …

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