Spotlight on Research: Framing the Sniper Attacks

Posted: October 15, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

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

The odds may have been very much against it, but with pages and pages and hours and hours of coverage, danger seemed more possible. The media broke in on soap operas and prime time sitcoms. Newspapers devoted the majority of their pages to the story. The beltway became backed up, and traffic stopped. Fear was prevalent.

Jack Censer
Jack Censer
Photo by Evan Cantwell

The media coverage of the sniper attacks interested 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 this professor, who is a historian of the press concerned with how stories are framed, the sniper coverage provided an excellent way to look at the media in an apolitical context. He wasn’t interested in the methods the police used to solve their case or the backgrounds of the killers. He was interested in something more difficult to define-the way the press chose to report the story to the public and what that choice meant in a historical and social context. He thought this concept, rather than the details of the crimes, would make the basis of a book.

“I am always interested in the way the press works, and this was a good way to look at that because it wasn’t a political event,” says Censer. “There was no one in the mainstream who thought that the snipers were doing a good thing, so the main difference in the framing was fear.”

Using this concept of fear, Censer looked at dozens of newspapers and television stations that covered the sniper attacks during those 23 days. He also interviewed more than 75 people, including Michael Ruane and Sari Horowitz of the Washington Post, who wrote a comprehensive book, 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 that they would probably be safe. Using this spectrum, Censer realized that the press tended to lean toward the more fearful end of the spectrum. “My findings show that the press, in a world of choices, ended up choosing fear. They were pretty interested in interviewing people who were scared, although their purpose at the time may not have been clear to them. In my book, I plan to speculate why they did what they did.”

To balance this research of media coverage, Censer also studied the way that school districts in the area framed the sniper attacks. Using data from area 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. The school districts tried to project a sense of safety by staying open throughout the attacks, and Censer says, for the most part, “attendence was way over the top.”

“They were the complete opposite of the press,” says Censer. “While the press seemed to emphasize the fear, the schools were concentrating on deemphasizing it, on making life bearable. I am not trying to say that one is right, because, of course, 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.”

So why did the press end up framing the story the way it did? To come to any conclusion, Censer first had to do some painstaking research. Because many of the television stations devoted hours and hours of continuous coverage to the attacks, Censer had to turn to technology to get 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 of the continuous coverage of the sniper attacks as broadcast on five major channels in the metropolitan area. He was able to watch the television—including commercials—as it was shown.

“For a historian, this is the closest thing we have to being a time traveler,” says Censer. “I was able to see the commercial breaks and when the stations chose to switch to no commercials. I could see the anxieties on the reporters’ faces as they reported live. And I was able to compare the discrepancies between the news stations. The continuous coverage was especially fascinating to me because it was incredibly boring on one level—sometimes nothing new would happen for hours—but also created a sense of dread because there was no progress.”

Currently two-thirds finished with writing his book, Censer is still analyzing data. He wishes to go beyond what he calls the “simplistic” question of whether the press is “good” or “bad” to look at the method and judgment of the press and how it affects history and the collective memory of society. “Rather than ask the question that many of the recently published books analyzing the press seem to ask—’Is the press biased?’—I want to ask, ‘What does it do?'” In the end, he feels, it is this question that will prove more valuable to understanding the way media works and the place it has in creating history.

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