BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The panic created by random sniper attacks in and around Washington has been intense. The coverage, locally and globally, has been intense. And it wasn't long before the criticism of that coverage became intense as well, exemplified by the frustrated tongue lashing delivered by Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose.
CHARLES MOOSE: I beg of the media: let us do our job. If the community wants you to do it, they will call today and we will have a vote and if it's decided that Channel 9's going to investigate this case, then so be it. So be it.
BOB GARFIELD:More second-guessing came in last Sunday's Washington Post where psychologist Harvey Goldstein accused the media of egging on the sniper by in effect taunting him and feeding him the publicity he craves. But former reporter turned University of Maryland journalism ethicist Chris Hanson doesn't buy it.
CHRIS HANSON: No, I don't. So far as I'm concerned we don't really know what is motivating this killer. Maybe he's driven by the desire to get more and more media coverage. Maybe he's driven by something else like a desire to kill. Maybe if the amount of coverage were diminished, he would be more motivated to go out and kill because he wants to get back in the news. We simply don't know.
BOB GARFIELD:Let's say he is the number one audience member of all of this overheated publicity about the crimes. If that's true, do the media have a responsibility to somehow measure their words in a, a way that they ordinarily wouldn't?
CHRIS HANSON: Well lives are at stake, and of course reporters should measure their words very, very carefully. The problem is you don't often know what words will lead to what results. Dr. Goldstein is saying that reports about schools being safe led the killer to go in front of a school. That might be true and it might not. So yes, you have to be careful, but I think that reporters should just go on about doing their jobs. The-- the role of the media in a case like this is essential, and it's not fair to blast the media as a bunch of jackals who are there simply to, to take advantage of misfortune. They are helping the police in many cases to, to do their job.
BOB GARFIELD:That's the news, but-- the media and the, the news channels are a whole lot more than news. There are endless talk shows and endless experts of various stripes paraded before the viewers to speculate about what's going on. Should they have a particular responsibility themselves to be circumspect about this and just to shut their flapping lips for once?
CHRIS HANSON: Well I think that any so-called expert, psychologist, retired profiler or whatever who goes on to a show like that obviously should be very, very thoughtful and careful about what they say. It turns out that much of what they say contradicts each other. Some of them say that it's, it's a mistake ever to call this killer a coward. Others say it's helpful to call him a coward. Others say you should never call him a sniper. There's so much disagreement about what will set this guy off - and so you, you assemble a bunch of people who give their various opinions about it and you create a Tower of Babel on television. It's confusing. How damaging it is, is very hard to assess -- I don't - I'm not sure if it's damaging at all other than perhaps to the dignity of, of the news business.
BOB GARFIELD: You have been a journalist and you have been a journalism critic. From your perspective, what has the press done wrong?
CHRIS HANSON:Well a friend of mine told me that she had seen a local news report where children were being taken home from school in the wake of the-- of the school shooting. A reporter was there and he talked to the father of this child and then put the microphone to the child who then just burst down in tears. I don't think it's a very good idea to shove a microphone in front of kid in circumstances like that. Here's another one. After the recent shooting, reporters were standing in the lot and endlessly repeating the news that had already happened. It later turned out that the police had failed to close off a number of the smaller highways around the area and so they tried to snap a dragnet down on the area but had left a number of gaps. It would have been interesting if some of the, of the reporters had actually gone out and done some reporting and found out how effective this thing had been and then once they were sure that the guy had gotten away, report that. The final thing I'd say is that from my standpoint the low point of all the reporting came on an ABC program with the title In the Crosshairs. Evidently because they didn't have too much new to report, the network decided to report on itself, and they went and interviewed a, a number of ABC correspondents who live in the D.C. area and who have children and who acknowledged that they too were fearful, they too feel vulnerable. And it came across rather like a good advertisement rather than as a news report, and you know, maybe it was intended to inoculate the network against the next round of media bashing, but I'm old fashioned, and I'd always been told by my editors that, you know, you're not supposed to make yourself part of the story. And, and here we have a very strange inversion of that that made me a little nauseated.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, well Chris Hanson, thank you very much.
CHRIS HANSON: You're welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Chris Hanson teaches journalism ethics at the University of Maryland.