Playing the Death Card

The Washington sniper was already terrorizing millions across a large metropolitan area. But for some media people, one scared city is simply not enough. A story like this just isn't fully realized, hasn't achieved its maximum impact, until the fear has spread everywhere and you've got a Major Mass Trend rolling across the land.

So Newsweek stepped up to the mark and did its solemn journalistic duty. In its cover package this week, the magazine offered hard factual evidence that "The Tarot Card Killer" (catchy name, invaluable marketing tool) had slipped the shackles of one measly media market and gone full-on national. The evidence? A poll ordered up by Newsweek and published in the magazine's Web edition. And voila:

"The recent 10-day shooting spree in the Washington area has left Americans nationwide more fearful of being the victim of a sniper attack than they are of being targeted by terrorists, according to the latest Newsweek poll. Forty-seven percent of Americans polled say they are very or somewhat concerned about someone in their family being a victim of sniper violence, while 43 percent share similar concerns about a family member being the victim of a terrorist attack. Fear of being the victim of a sniper attack was especially high among women (56 percent very or somewhat concerned) and minorities (58 percent very or somewhat concerned)."

Newsweek did not ask respondents if their fear of snipers might have anything to do with powerful media outlets' arousing that fear by, say, putting one sniper's repulsive calling card on the cover of a magazine. Some questions are too sensitive for polls.

Welcome to the big time, Mr. Death. In fact, the sniper made the covers of all three newsweeklies, but Time and U.S. News & World Report had the decency to place a fig leaf, albeit a transparent one, over their fear-mongering. Time ("The Beltway Sniper") looked at the science of catching a serial killer, while U.S. News ("The Quicksilver Sniper"-the winner, surely, of the booby prize in this macabre contest of cleverness) delved into the psychology of such crimes.

I know there are good arguments for much of the massive coverage this story has gotten. It's an extraordinary string of crimes, and it comes at a time when people are already spooked. Though it's happened around Washington, the whole country has been following the story since well before the newsweeklies printed this week's issues. But it's one thing to cover a dramatic regional murder spree, and it's another to hype it so relentlessly that half the people in the country think they might be gunned down the next time they run out to the drugstore. What's really stunning about the Newsweek poll is not that the public is thinking this way, but that the magazine has no apparent awareness it is feeding the cycle of fear, with the issue you hold in your hands.

And magazines are not alone here. On Monday night, I happened on a special edition of ABC's 20/20, all about the sniper. The show was already in progress and I didn't see most of it, but what I did catch I can describe only as creepy. Though there had been no shootings over the long weekend—yet—and virtually no news on the subject, the network had John Miller standing somewhere outside Washington, trying desperately to fill an hour with fresh sniper content. At one point, he paused for a commercial and one of those portentous Rod Serling-ish voices that tease the next segment on magazine shows intoned, "Life in suburban Washington goes on. But everything has changed. Living and working in the face of fear. 'In the Crosshairs' continues in a moment."

In the crosshairs? To whom did this refer, other than the 10 people we knew had actually been in the crosshairs up to that point? Why, to all of Washington, and perhaps beyond. The Tarot Card Killer is everywhere, and his crosshairs are many. After the commercials, several residents of Washington and its suburbs were interviewed about how afraid they and their families were. And in an odd twist, those residents were all ABC reporters: Martha Raddatz, Pierre Thomas, Terry Moran, and Claire Shipman. I suppose the idea was to let down the mask of objectivity, to allow the public to see that even hard-nosed big-league journalists, the sort of folks who take on the president without flinching, have been affected. The reporters all spoke from the heart, and each came across quite sympathetically. But there was something manipulative about the whole exercise, as if ABC were saying, "Things have gotten so bad, even we, your famous friends, are scared stiff," and thus ratcheting up the story another notch. There are times when it's appropriate and even wise for a reporter to let personal experience intrude on professional duty. This wasn't one of them.

A large part of journalism is spreading bad news, and the more shocking the news, the more we want to spread it. But with bad news breaking out everywhere, this is a time to watch ourselves, to try to avoid spreading terror where there needn't be any.

Elsewhere in this week's cover package, Newsweek notes, "Of course the chance of being chosen by the shooter was small. But someone was going to be next, and the seemingly random way he picked his anonymous targets—black, white, male, female, adult, child, it didn't matter—made it impossible to avoid the hair-raising feeling that someone, hidden in the distance, might be staring at you through a rifle scope."

Journalism or terrorism? Sometimes it's a very thin line.