December 9, 2003

Media exaggerate sniper threat

By James Alan Fox and Jack Levin

Spurred by the murder trials of Washington, D.C.-area snipers John Muhammad and Lee Malvo and the daily tribulations of Ohio commuters terrified by shootings on I-270, the term ''serial sniper'' is fast becoming as familiar as ''serial killer'' did two decades ago -- and for much the same reason.

Americans are predictably quick to suspect a new and frightening epidemic of bloodshed in the wake of a few isolated but extraordinary events that capture widespread attention. Those concerns, in many respects, are fueled by some media portrayals that make the threat seem bigger than it really is. The impact, at a time when the country is already on edge about possible terrorist attacks, is to stir up feelings of helplessness because of the randomness of the threats. Yet in spite of two separate, widely publicized sniper-like episodes during the past 14 months, the country isn't close to experiencing an epidemic.

So how did we start down this road to our exaggerated view of serial snipers?

Decades ago, notorious multiple murderers, such as Ted Bundy (who killed 15 young women during the mid-1970s), David Berkowitz (''Son of Sam'' killer of six people in the 1970s) and John Wayne Gacy (murderer of 33 young men in the late 1970s), prompted the FBI to establish its behavioral profiling program. Those killers also motivated Congress to hold special hearings on this ''new'' crime known as serial murder and led to grossly exaggerated press reports about thousands of innocent people falling victim to homicidal and sadistic predators. It took years to calm the public's hysteria with accurate information: Less than 1% of the nation's murder toll could be linked to these high-profile slayers.

This same phenomenon of erroneous thinking about epidemics occurred in the string of post-office shootings during the late 1980s, the rash of school massacres during the late 1990s and the episodes of child kidnappings in 2002 during what some media labeled the ''Summer of Abduction.''

Of course, the 1986 slaughter of 14 post office workers in Edmund, Okla., the 1999 mass murder of 12 Columbine High School students and a teacher in Littleton, Colo., and the 2002 abduction of Elizabeth Smart from her Salt Lake City home were all extraordinary, tragic and newsworthy events, but hardly representative. Each sparked a level of panic that was vastly out of proportion with the risk.

Ironically, the discovery of a new epidemic of violence often occurs when the rate is actually on the decline. The anxiety about school safety, for example, that emerged after the Columbine shootings, came at a time when the annual tally of school homicides had plummeted -- from 45 to 21 during the decade.

The same time lag between prevalence and panic can be found in recent sniper attacks, such as the 14 shootings in Columbus that have occurred since May, one of which was fatal. On average in the U.S., snipers killed 26 victims annually in the 1980s, 14 annually in the 1990s, and nine per year from 2000 to 2002, including the 10 shot to death last October in the Washington area.

Yet despite the declining victim count, the public, media and police have become more focused on what they fear to be an emerging epidemic. Once again, it is the extraordinary case that drives public opinion. The Washington shootings, which dominated media coverage last year and continue to make headlines surrounding the trials of Muhammad, recently found guilty, and Malvo, whose trial is ongoing, have inspired increased fear about snipers.

The hundreds of single-victim episodes that preceded the Washington sniper attacks received only local coverage. By contrast, the attacks in the capital area that claimed the lives of 10 victims and terrified countless others were seen as a national tragedy and treated by the media as such. Sensing widespread concern, the FBI even published a special statistical analysis of U.S. snipers as part of its annual crime report. In effect, sniping officially had become a priority.

While Columbus residents fear that their shootings could be a carbon copy of the Washington sniper case, there are actually far more differences than similarities between the two cases. Most importantly, the Washington snipers were more methodical and sophisticated, characteristics that do not appear to apply to the I-270 shooter. The Washington snipers aimed to kill and used murder to advance their objectives: money and revenge. The Ohio shooter, on the other hand, essentially has targeted property; the single fatality may have been unintended.

Psychologically, it is easier to target objects than people. The Ohio sniper doesn't appear to be bent on killing, but perhaps just seeks the thrill and attention. If the objective were indeed murder, then this sniper would not be shooting at cars on the highway, with its low probability of killing people.

Like most serial killers, and the Washington snipers, the Ohio shooter likely enjoys seeing the community in a state of terror. It makes him feel important. Indeed, this feeling is enhanced by the pervasive media coverage. By failing to keep the level of the threat in perspective, we exaggerate not only the risk in the minds of the public, but also the shooter's feelings of power over us.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice and Jack Levin is the Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern University.