Police, press must recognize boundaries in sniper case

October 17, 2002|By Christopher Hanson

THE sniper terrorizing Maryland, Virginia and Washington is just the sort of riveting, high-pressure story that can lure news hounds across the ethical line.

And if you believe Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose, that's exactly what happened last week. He accused Washington's WUSA-TV, Channel 9, of impeding the manhunt with a scoop that police had found a taunting message from the sniper.

Doing a vital job under high stress, Chief Moose lashed out understandably. But he hit the wrong target. In this case, the cops had something to answer for while the press actually merited some praise.

Chief Moose blasted WUSA and The Washington Post, which matched the story, for disclosing that investigators at a Bowie shooting site had found a tarot "Death" card on which the shooter had written "Dear Policeman, I am God." A 13-year-old boy on his way to his middle school that morning had been shot and critically wounded.

Fuming, the chief told a news conference televised live, "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. If they do, then let me know. We ... will turn this case over to the media and you can solve it."

But this wasn't a matter of reporters intruding on cops. It was the chief wanting to play editor, controlling disclosures because police know best.

Officers often disagree about whether revealing a particular detail will help or hurt a case. In fact, police sources from outside Montgomery County apparently leaked the tarot card story to WUSA. As part of the tarot message, police were asked not to reveal its contents to the media. Investigators who castigated the station say its report might have cost them a chance to open a line of communication with the killer. That's possible.

And withholding details that only a killer would know does make it easier for police to weed out false confessions.

But it's also possible that the tarot card report might lead someone to call the tip line about that twitchy gun enthusiast down the hall with a "Death" card pasted to his door. The officers who leaked the tarot details guessed the potential payoff outweighed the harms of disclosure.

Disclosure, of course, is the primary job of the news media. They should withhold information only for compelling reasons.

In this case, divisions within police ranks made it hard for law enforcement sources to be compelling. The leak brought to light these divisions, and the public definitely deserved to know about them. If the press had let Chief Moose be their editor, this problem might not have become public.

After it did, The Post followed up with a sobering article detailing similar problems, including turf fights between police jurisdictions.

Chief Moose has also derided free-lance "profilers" who appear on TV to share insights on the killer's personality. Police fear their descriptions will color public perceptions and make it harder for a citizen to finger the sniper.

That seems unlikely, given that the experts' profiles range from arrogant sociopath fully in control all the way to rampaging schizophrenic unable to sift fantasy from reality.

Ironically, some police have expressed concern that descriptions of a white truck or van seen fleeing shooting scenes -- information the authorities released officially -- will lead citizens to overlook other vehicles that might be important to the case.

Even though law enforcement has no crystal ball, reporters must carefully weigh an official request to withhold details in the days ahead. It would also be helpful if the police acknowledged what at least some of them know: Lives depend on both the police and the press playing their respective roles in this crisis.

Christopher Hanson was a reporter for 20 years. He teaches journalism ethics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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