Public's glimpse of police-media dance

News: Officials plead for secrecy at times, for publicity at others, and always want to lead.

October 27, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Not that long ago, every new reporter at The Sun - and, in fact, at most major newspapers - began with a stint covering the police. In Baltimore, a small squad of young reporters would spend their days in the various district stations, reporting back to a veteran on the desk who would write the stories.

It was an ideal place to learn the craft, to get the facts straight, the names spelled right and the story told in a succinct and straightforward fashion. It was also a place a journalist began the delicate dance that defines many careers - between authorities who know and reporters who want to know.

It is this dance that all of America has been watching during the daily press briefings on sniper killings that have wrought havoc in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. At times it has been clumsily choreographed - reporters in this media crucible of the nation's capital scrambling for information and Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose monotonously repeating that it would be "inappropriate" to respond even as the toll of victims continued to climb.

"The public has been slowly educated as to what the job of a police reporter is," says Christopher Hanson, who teaches courses on ethics at the journalism school at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Sometimes, it was not a pretty sight. Policemen are among the first authority figures children are taught to respect. When they are working as hard as Moose and company were, it can be unpleasant to watch them getting questioned aggressively, even skeptically.

"You are supposed to respect authority figures," says Hanson. "People are not used to seeing press conferences live very often. But journalists have to ask the questions. People don't really get that, they don't understand the process of reporting."

Still, some think the media went too far during this crisis.

"To me as an American citizen, it is not the media that is representing me, it is the police," says Thomas J. Mauriello, who has written a book on criminal investigation.

Mauriello, who lectures on forensic science at the University of Maryland, agrees that the media have a right to be skeptical of police operations - and to ask tough questions about them. But, he says, this should not happen in the middle of an investigation.

"This was an ongoing crime," he says. "It's not in the aftermath, it's in the middle of the crime."

During a continuing investigation, Maureillo says, the media should take their cues from the professionals lest they jeopardize the police work.

"What they were doing didn't help the American people, made them no smarter in protecting themselves, it was only doing harm, feeding information to the sniper," he says. He referred particularly to the leak of the fact that a tarot card was left at an early sniper site and information from traffic reporters on the location of roadblocks after shootings, something that stopped after police requests.

But Hanson says that as the investigation went on, and the killings continued, the media had a duty to question the police on procedures and policies.

"The public initially saw Chief Moose as a somewhat beleaguered man under difficult circumstances who was trying to do a good job," Hanson says. But, as more incidents were reported with little indication of progress in the investigation, Hanson says, the public probably grew "more receptive ... to reports demonstrating the shortcomings of the investigation."

That is not to say, Hanson emphasizes, that the press should do anything that harms police work. He notes that the news of the tarot card came from a police department leak. A reporter could have surmised that at least some police wanted that information out there, thinking it might lead to a member of the public providing a crucial lead in the case. Indeed, in hindsight, it may well be that Moose's vehement protest of the leak was stage-managed for the sniper, whose message said not to release the information to the press - even as the tarot card was leaked so the public could learn of it.

Hanson says it was appropriate for media to act as a conduit between police and the sniper.

"Certainly at times you convey information as the police request," Hanson said of the media's role. "But that doesn't mean you work for the police department. There is value in an independent evaluation of information, an independent pair of eyes determining which information is valuable. You need an independent press corps to be the watchdog."

Mauriello does not disagree, but says the press should not assume that role until the investigation is over. Until then, he says of the police, "We have to believe that these people are the professionals."

Both Hanson and Mauriello agree that the media did go over the line with the endless parade of ersatz experts who provided, particularly on the all-news cable channels, all sorts of speculation about the sniper and the investigation.

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