Media Coverage of Crime

Case Study: The 2002 D.C. Sniper Attacks

The media can be a powerful source for transmitting crucial information to the public, but too much information, especially in an ongoing criminal case, may be problematic. Police have a responsibility to protect and defend a nation’s citizens, and the media has the responsibility to report information useful to the people. At times, these duties clash, and the media face police forces that are unwilling to share information. But when the police and the media are able to align their purpose, and work together to protect citizens, they can create a powerful and effective alliance.

In 2002 in the United States, a sniper launched a series of killings in the Maryland, Washington DC, and Virginia area that sent a wave of panic through the nation. The shootings occurred outside in places such as gas stations, school parking lots, and in front of stores.  According to The Baltimore Sun, police released a sketch of a white box truck and later a white van, both vehicles onlookers claimed to see fleeing the shooting scenes, but no witness could provide a license plate number or a description of the shooter.

The mysterious nature of the attacks left very few leads to locating the sniper. Maryland Police Chief Charles Moose led the investigation and was responsible for briefing the media. Chief Moose was criticized for holding multiple news briefings each day, without any new developments to report. The lack of information in those briefings prompted reporters to jump on any information when they did learn it.  When reporters heard about a Tarot card left by the sniper at one of the shooting scenes, for instance, they published the news. According to PBS NewsHour, Chief Moose was displeased with the media for reporting the information. "I have not received any message that the citizens of Montgomery County want Channel 9 or the Washington Post or any other media outlet to solve this case," Chief Moose said. "If they do, then let me know."

Other observers felt that the public deserved more access to information.  As the events were unfolding, Director Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in DC said the media was making sensible decisions about sharing information.

"What I'm hearing reporters say is, 'If we find a clue, we'll check with police, but it'll be our decision to run with it,'" Lichter says. "They are serving fair notice to the police: 'It's your job to hide it, and it is our job to show it.'  Lichter felt Chief Moose was demonstrating a hint of irresponsibility," noting that he thought, "A big majority of the public would be angry with that attitude."

Three weeks into the serial killings by the sniper, with no end to the investigation in sight, police changed their policy.  According to BBC, police released information to the public that broke the case: news that they were searching for a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice with New Jersey tags.  The Baltimore Sun reported that three hours after those details became public, the police received a tip about a parked car meeting the description released by the media.  Police arrested John Allen Muhammad, 41, a former soldier, and Lee Boyd Malvo, a 17 year old Jamaican who frequently accompanied Muhammad on his shootings.

Ron Lantz, a truck driver, had heard the media reports and recognized the vehicle.  "I had no doubt because I'd been listening to the radio," he said, to CBS News. "I was listening to (Police Chief) Moose on there describe the car and license plate number."

Ten people were killed and three were wounded over the three-week span of attacks. The arrest ended the time of intense fear people in the Maryland, DC, and Virginia area were feeling due to the mysterious and unpredictable attacks in the area.

The media played a significant role in the DC Sniper case, transmitting information to the public that led directly to the snipers' capture. Despite significant initial hesitation on the part of the police to involve the media in the case, the public disclosure of information ultimately solved the case.

A thin line exists between media coverage being helpful or detrimental to an investigation.  When police forces and the media are able to align and disseminate what they both believe to be an appropriate amount of information to the people, it can increase the safety of the community.