Editors' meeting gets rare news perspective

Convention: Issues being discussed by media managers in Baltimore are reflected in the developing sniper story.

October 23, 2002|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

In the unfolding drama that is the sniper story, what role is the media playing - villain, supporting actor, messenger?

All of the above, depending on the day and the mood of Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose, who by turns has castigated, thanked and used the media over the three-week span in which the still at-large sniper has stalked random victims in Maryland, Washington and Virginia.

As 300 newspaper editors gather in Baltimore today for an industry conference, a fascinating case study of their business continues to play out nearby, illustrating some of the issues they will be discussing during a four-day meeting: access to information, excellence in reporting, dealing with graphic photographs and credibility.

"Our credibility is really on the line with a story like this," said Ed Jones, editor of the Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Va., and incoming president of the Associated Press Managing Editors, which is holding its annual meeting in Baltimore along with the Associated Press Photo Managers. "We're very much a part of this sniper story."

Part of the reason the press has become a player in the story is the nature of the modern media: With 24-hour cable news networks and up-to-the-minute Internet updates, the public now watches events unfold as they happen, rather than waiting for journalists to tidy up the raw material of their reporting and present it on the evening news or in the morning paper.

Conflict and control

With the sniper story, viewers can now watch the daily wrestling match between Moose and the media, the former seeking to control the information released about the police investigation, and the latter seeking more details about a case that remains largely shrouded in mystery.

Live TV coverage of Moose's daily briefings exhibits what to non-journalists must seem like total chaos - reporters trying to outshout one another and ask the same question multiple ways, Moose finding just as many ways not to answer them.

"The public has more of an opportunity today to see the sausage being made," said Carol Nunnelly, on leave from her post as managing editor of the Birmingham News in Alabama to direct an APME project to improve newspapers' credibility.

Credibility has become an important issue in the industry, with a recent poll showing that the public's image of the press, which had risen after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is now dropping again.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, in a survey released several months ago, found declines in how those polled viewed news organizations on professionalism, fairness and accuracy.

While reporters might believe they are acting on the public's behalf, uncovering information for its benefit, that's not necessarily how readers and viewers see it, Nunnelly said.

"The public doesn't always believe that we are acting in the greater good," she said.

Nunnelly hopes to help combat that with her APME National Credibility Roundtables Project. Newspapers across the country have held community roundtable discussions in which participants pick apart a local issue and how the newspaper covered it.

It is something of a smaller, localized version of what is happening now, unofficially, as it seems everyone has something to say about media coverage of the sniper. Letters to the editor and e-mails to cable news channels often feature complaints: The Sun and other papers, for example, offended readers with a photograph of the covered body of Linda Franklin, the FBI analyst killed Oct. 14.

Others have complained that reporters are wasting Moose's time by hounding him for more information, or that they are playing to the sniper's ego by focusing so much on him.

And, indeed, there are those who believe the media - both in reporting official statements and in airing unofficial speculation - might be driving some of the shooter's actions.

"Moose says the schools are safe, a school [in Bowie] is targeted. They report he's only targeting areas near a major artery, then he goes to Seven Corners," said Washington-based media analyst Matthew T. Felling, referring to the shooting of Franklin in a congested Virginia suburb. "They report that military jets will be used for surveillance here, he leaves D.C."

Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs, makes a distinction between how various news organizations have covered the shootings. Newspapers, which print only once a day, have time to offer a more reasoned approach to the story, while the 24-hour cable stations "have to advance the story hour by hour," he said.

"At this point, it is a 20-minute story filling five hours of time," Felling said. "It's spackle. It's news spackle."

Given the relative dearth of information about the shooter, much of what fills the airtime has been speculation.

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