Off Target  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December 2002

Off Target   

The news media, particularly cable channels, relied heavily on profilers during the sniper coverage. But their speculation often turned out to be wildly inaccurate. Is there a better way to take advantage of their wisdom, or should they be used at all?

By Rachel Smolkin
     

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   » What They Said

On the morning of October 3, local and national media seized on a gripping and terrifying story: five people dead near Washington, D.C., picked off seemingly at random, in the same region where last year a plane slammed into the Pentagon and mysterious anthrax attacks felled two postal workers. Over the next three weeks, the death toll would mount to 10.

Confronting an unprecedented news story, a panicked public and a dearth of hard information from law enforcement officials, 24-hour cable news channels and other media outlets filled time and space with a parade of profilers, criminologists, forensic specialists and former detectives. In theory, these designated "experts" could educate and perhaps even reassure the public by providing context and perspective about the unknown sniper. The commentators could divulge statistics, discuss similar episodes and assess the unfolding case based on their own experience.

But the reality was less constructive. Many profilers and pundits, prodded by interviewers, plunged into a din of speculation, much of it wrong. Certainly no one predicted the eventual suspects would be two black men, the elder, John Allen Muhammad, 41, a father figure to the younger, John Lee Malvo, 17. No one envisioned Malvo as a Jamaican immigrant or Muhammad as a drifter born in Louisiana--many of the profilers said they were local. Nobody anticipated that SWAT teams would apprehend the unemployed, homeless pair asleep in their blue Chevy Caprice. Far from sharpening the public's comprehension, the incessant speculation may have exacerbated people's confusion and frustration--and, perhaps, hampered the search for the snipers.

At times, the predictions appeared as haphazard as the selection of victims. "He's probably Caucasian. He's probably in his 30s," forensic psychologist N.G. Berrill told ABC on October 8.

Bo Dietl, a retired New York City homicide detective and chairman of a security and investigations company, said he believed two white teenagers, brainwashed by video games, had styled themselves after Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. "There's probably two skinny kids out there who have made a pact with each other," Dietl told the New York Times. James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminal justice professor and frequent television commentator, said in the same October 16 article: "It's probably some introverted guy living by himself, working by himself, living out the ultimate fantasy."

Fox's colleague Jack Levin, a criminologist and director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern, told Larry King on October 18, during one of six appearances on King's show: "He's probably a middle-aged guy.... Truth is, he has other responsibilities in his life. He may be married. He may be playing with his children, watching football on Sunday. Or he may have a part-time job."

Robert Ressler, a former FBI profiler in the formative years of the FBI's behavioral science unit, told CNN's King that night: "It was clear that this individual and, in my opinion, these individuals, were going to stay in the major metropolitan Washington area, which tells me that they're residents. These people are long-term residents."

And Pat Brown, a self-taught criminal profiler, author and ubiquitous television presence during the sniper case, told CBS on October 22: "I do believe he's working between Montgomery County, Maryland, and Spotsylvania, Virginia. I think those are his two points. I think he lives in one location, possibly works in the other or has a relative down in the other one.... I have surmised from the beginning that he probably lives...somewhere about three miles from the Olney, Maryland, area."

Less than 48 hours later, SWAT teams descended on a sleeping Muhammad and Malvo at a rest stop outside Frederick, Maryland, near the West Virginia border. Former residents of Washington state, the pair apparently lived in their 1990 Chevy Caprice and are suspected in killings in Washington state, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia in addition to the spate of shootings in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Some predictions were indeed accurate. Ressler and Dietl rightly inferred that there were two shooters. Berrill correctly surmised that the suspect probably had military experience. Fox and others accurately postulated the shooters' interpersonal failures. The pundits almost uniformly eliminated women from suspicion, and many anticipated the shooters' fascination with guns. Perhaps the experts arrived at these deductions through aptitude and experience. Perhaps they got lucky. Perhaps, if you make enough predictions, the odds increase that at least some will be correct.

Regardless, the myriad speculation--much of which turned out to be wrong--has prompted a flurry of post-crisis self-examination by the news media.

In the aftermath, media commentators and law enforcement officials have focused much of their criticism on the 24-hour cable news channels that provided such a visible forum for the pundits.

"The important question is, was the orgy of speculation harmless--or was there a very dangerous undercurrent to it?" Washington Post reporters Paul Farhi and Linton Weeks wrote on October 25, one day after the suspects' arrest. "By saturating the public's consciousness with phantom images of thirtyish white men, did the media profilers distract attention from a more general and possibly open-minded search for the perpetrators?... If so, the media's performance raises a chilling possibility: that the suspects might have evaded detection for so long because witnesses were focusing too intently on media-created 'profiles' that didn't come close to the real thing."

Not all news organizations relied so heavily on designated experts. WRC-TV, an NBC-owned station in Washington, D.C., declined to use profilers or other pundits despite the intense public interest in the case. "People were hanging on every word, and we thought it was appropriate that we stick to the facts as we knew them and not get into the realm of speculation," says News Director Robert Long. "Those who were working on the case were unavailable, and the others were kibitzers."

Greta Van Susteren, the Fox News Channel host who vaulted to TV stardom as a pundit during the O.J. Simpson trial, also decided not to use profilers on her program. "Crimes are always solved the same way, the old-fashioned way: clues and tips," says Van Susteren, a former defense attorney. "I did not think profiling was something I should put out there as a way to find these people."

But cable news executives defend their reliance on profilers and other crime experts as a way to provide the public with assessments based on facts.

"We would do it all over again," says CNN Vice President Joy DiBenedetto. "We were very careful about the arrangements we made to have people on the air. We had people who stayed with us throughout the length of the story to educate the public on all the new information that we did get from police."

MSNBC Vice President Mark Effron asks, "Do I think that cable news erred by having on smart, experienced former FBI and other law enforcement people to give their take on it? No, I don't." Effron compares his network's coverage of the sniper case to its handling of possible military action against Iraq, when MSNBC invites former generals to discuss the likelihood and ramifications of U.S. military action.

"The viewers understand that they're listening to smart people who don't necessarily have the inside information but are speculating based on their experience," Effron says. "We kept the focus on a story that there was enormous interest in, not just in the D.C. area but all around the country."

He adds that during a big, ongoing story, the emergence of inaccurate information is inevitable. The police, for example, mistakenly told the public to look for a white van, when the suspects' actual vehicle turned out to be a blue Chevy Caprice. "To put blame on the all-news cable networks is kind of a cheap shot," Effron says.

TV sniper commentators contend that the press, which gladly quoted them and pressed them to share opinions, is now unfairly blaming them. Although a few admit to some discomfort about their performance, others justify and defend their predictions.

"When you're working on an unprecedented case with very little information, of course you're not going to get it completely right," says Northeastern's Levin. "This is going to sound really defensive, and it is. I was criticized because I suggested, based on probability, that the killer would turn out to be a white, middle-aged male. The killer turned out to be a black, middle-aged male. So I got two out of three. But nobody ever says anything about the ones I got right."

Levin dismisses the Post's fears of a "chilling possibility" that profilers distracted public attention from the actual suspects as "laughable. The most important, misleading information was given by the police. All they talked about was the white van."

Adds Fox: "There were a lot of things that were right and a lot of things that were wrong. Most of the media I've seen focuses on the things that were wrong." Fox, a social scientist who with Levin coauthored several books about serial murder, says interviewers prodded him to profile the sniper and to speculate. Still, he doesn't believe his remarks harmed the public.

"Do you really think people were walking around and ducking every time they saw a white person?" Fox asks. He suggests that he and other commentators actually might have served a useful role. "There was a tremendous amount of airtime, obviously, that had to be filled, and given the level of panic and fear, people didn't feel like they had any control of the situation," Fox says. "Sometimes when people don't feel in control they like to watch TV and see what people are saying."

Profiler Brown says police made a common mistake by providing so little information to the public and by overemphasizing some pieces of information, such as the elusive white van. She contends profilers stepped in to fill the vacuum. "At least they gave some information and got people thinking," says Brown, adding that she qualified her remarks as much as possible.

Although Dietl, the retired homicide detective, had speculated that two teenagers were responsible for the shootings, he unabashedly pronounces himself "half right." As early as October 3, Dietl concluded based on his experience that two people were committing the murders, with one pushing the other in a deadly game.

Dietl says he appeared on CNN and other networks to teach the public that they could help police crack the case by remaining vigilant. He denies misleading viewers with his remarks about teenagers and video games. "I don't think everybody's listening to what I said," Dietl declares. "I don't think everybody was so in tune that when I speak, everybody listens and believes every syllable that I say. Now if you had the police chief coming out and saying, 'It's two white skinny guys,' then you have a problem."

Berrill, a faculty member at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York, based his hunches about the shooter as a thirtyish white man on precedent. "It's like saying statistically, a fellow's going to live until he's 70 years old," says Berrill, who as a forensic psychologist has been hired by courts, defense attorneys and prosecutors to assess the mental status and competency of accused criminals.

But Berrill admits to feeling a bit "weird" as he participated in an increasingly "circus-like" media atmosphere. "Did I get caught up in it?" he asks. "Probably. It's hard to say no to 'Good Morning America' or to [being told], 'you're a fantastic expert.' I tried to preface it with, 'who knows?' and 'probably.' Thank God I said 'probably.' "

Candice DeLong, a retired FBI agent, emphasizes what she sees as the accuracy of her statements. DeLong worked for more than a decade as an FBI field profiler in Chicago and San Francisco, submitting her profiles to the main FBI unit in Quantico, Virginia, for approval before providing them to police. In an October 16 article in the New York Times, she said she saw the sniper as "into this stealth ninja stuff, walking around with a swagger, used to bossing people around, maybe a fireman or construction worker."

Although the suspects were neither construction workers nor firemen, DeLong says she correctly envisioned a "macho profession" because Muhammad had been a soldier. "I was not getting the sense the shooter had lace curtains in the living room," she says.

Perhaps more frequently than during the sniper extravaganza, profilers now emphasize that their line of work is an art, not a science. The behind-the-scenes tool does not identify one particular suspect but can help police focus investigations or choose strategies. Profilers assisting police study crime-scene evidence and photographs and then postulate the unknown offender's behavioral traits and tendencies.

"Any profiler who tells you he knows something 'absolutely, positively' is delusional," says Clint Van Zandt, a 25-year FBI veteran who led negotiations with the Branch Davidians in Waco and correctly profiled the Oklahoma City bomber as a single, white male with military experience. "It's a broad-brush art based upon experience and education. All you're doing is taking a very large population group and shrinking it down so investigators can go out and work."

During the sniper case, Van Zandt appeared as an MSNBC commentator but declined to predict the shooter's age and race or commit to the number of shooters. "On the outside, it's opinion and supposition," Van Zandt says. "On the inside, it's investigation. You have to maintain that firewall."

About a week before police arrested Muhammad and Malvo, Van Zandt says he called an MSNBC official, whom he declines to name, and said he no longer wanted to comment on the sniper case. He felt pundits were talking too much, speculating too much and positing too many theories as absolutes, and that he unwillingly had been sucked in. But the official told Van Zandt that if he didn't participate, somebody else would, and that other person might not share his care and concern for law enforcement issues.

Ultimately, Van Zandt reconsidered and continued to appear on MSNBC. "I really had to think about it: Am I helping, or hurting?" Van Zandt says. "In the [Washington] Post, I saw myself lumped in with people saying absolutes, and I try so hard not to say absolutes, it really bothered me." He says he's still not sure he made the right decision by continuing his television appearances.

Gregg McCrary, a former profiler and instructor at the FBI Academy's profiling unit, says he was careful never to offer a profile of the shooter. But he did tell the Washington Post on October 23: "When you break down the demographics of the Washington region, there is a statistical probability that the sniper is a white man."

In retrospect, McCrary, an ABC commentator during the shootings, says he "probably overstepped the line just by talking about statistical probabilities" because they "really don't mean anything. What counts is what's going on in this case."

If McCrary seems a bit self-critical, he saves most of his contempt for fellow sniper commentators. He contends many pundits designated as "experts" by the press lacked proper qualifications to discuss the case. He faults Brown, who has no formal police training, for criticizing police and for calling the shooter a "loser"--a remark that McCrary says could have provoked further violence.

"To put people on who say those things is reckless of the media," McCrary says. "I hope something like this is a learning experience, that they'll go back and look at the people they've put on, and say, 'Are these really the best people to put on?' Go back to the people who've really done this, worked cases, been qualified to profile, maybe been qualified in court as an expert in this area. Just declaring yourself to be a profiler doesn't really make you a profiler."

Brown disputes as "foolishness" the accusation that she might have provoked the snipers. The CEO of a nonprofit company that investigates murders free of charge for families of victims and police, Brown says she acquired her skills by reading "hundreds" of psychology and forensics books, attending training seminars and working "dozens and dozens" of homicide cases.

"There are many methodologies to learning profiling and to get the skills," Brown says. "There is simply no way you can say, 'This is what makes a good profiler.' It's really an investigative skill and a logic skill." She recommends that reporters focus on "expert explanation" rather than "expert opinion" by asking profilers to explain the reasons for their theories.

Profilers and crime commentators undoubtedly will resurface during the trials of Malvo and Muhammad and during inevitable future tragedies. Media analysts recommend that journalists provide more rigorous screening of designated experts' qualifications and more fully explain the value and limitations of their opinions to viewers and readers.

"Just as we try to educate ourselves about using medical reports, we in the journalism industry need to educate ourselves about how to use profilers and how we can discern who is good and who is not," says Kelly McBride, a member of the Poynter Institute's ethics faculty.

McBride has no quarrel with the wall-to-wall coverage of the sniper story. "It's not should you cover it 24 hours, it's how you cover it that I think needs to be discussed," she says.

McBride, who spent the first six years of her career as a police reporter at Spokane's Spokesman-Review, suggests asking profilers and other analysts: Where were you trained? What experience do you have? Who are your current or former employers?

"There needs to be more transparency in the process to give it more credibility," McBride says. "For example, who is Pat Brown? What makes her qualified to share her opinion, and why are her opinions so important that they merit the type of coverage that they got? We should all be looking at explaining to the public who we talk to and why we talk to them. Sometimes their only qualification seems to be that they're available."

McBride also says networks should disclose whether they are paying guests to share opinions, perhaps by adding an Internet link where interested viewers can peruse consultants' qualifications and learn whether they received financial compensation.

Some sniper analysts--such as MSNBC's Van Zandt, ABC's McCrary and CNN's Casey Jordan, a Western Connecticut State University criminologist received payment in return for providing exclusive services. McCrary, for example, says he signed a six-month contract as a consultant to ABC and will assist with future crime stories. Jordan says she received a daily stipend from CNN to cover her 24-hour-availability during the case. Other sniper commentators, such as Brown, maximized their television exposure by forgoing payment and declining to commit to one client. Brown is paid, however, for appearances on Court TV's "I, Detective" series.

"It is relevant, and I think it should be disclosed to the viewers who care," McBride says of the financial arrangements. "It just casts the information that they're giving in a different light and helps the viewer weigh the information. Maybe the viewer will say, 'If the person's good enough to be paid by the network, I should listen,' or maybe, 'If this person is paid, they're spouting off to get more money or to be more entertaining.' "

Poynter President James M. Naughton adds that reporters can make better use of experts. Instead of asking profilers with minimal information to speculate, "you might ask them how profiling works, and what kinds of things authorities are going to be looking for to create the profile. Obviously, in hindsight, the speculation was worthless."

Naughton says journalists instinctively want to extract as much information as possible. But he adds, "when they can't get it from authorities, getting it from someone who has no earthly idea is not a second-best option." He suggests that reporters resist the impulse to press pundits when they say they don't know the answer.

Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists, doesn't fault the media for using profilers but does object to their perpetual presence. "What they added was an analysis of the previous cases, which is fine, but I think they were overused," says Gest, a crime and legal affairs reporter for three decades at U.S. News & World Report and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I do fault the media for quoting them as being very definite. A lot of the quotes I saw went over the line because the profilers were stating definitely the background of the person or people involved in this case."

Nor does Gest applaud pundits who defend their commentary because it turned out to be partly correct. They're "just saying [they] guessed 10 different things and three were right," Gest says. "It's not a scorecard here. You should be basing this on actual facts."

Law enforcement authorities have scolded the media for relying on profilers and other crime commentators. On October 9, Charles Moose, the Montgomery County, Maryland, police chief, admonished the media for disclosing that police had found a tarot card at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Maryland, where a 13-year-old student had been shot. Moose then lambasted the pundits for speculating about the case.

"Unfortunately, we have any number of talking heads in the media, retired police professionals. They're ranting and raving on all of the various stations," Moose said. "It's all fun to be on television. If they're putting people in this community at risk so that they can have the pleasure of being on TV, it is so sad. We've got retired police chiefs out there, looking for other jobs, taking advantage of this situation to get their face on television."

Hours after police arrested Muhammad and Malvo, Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler upbraided the press for exacerbating public panic. "The fear was such that everyone thought they were going to get shot," he told the Associated Press Managing Editors conference in Baltimore. "Speculation, pontification by people who had no knowledge was amazing."

Possibly the news media and the pundits have learned from this experience. Possibly profilers and other crime analysts will frame their thoughts more carefully during future cases, douse their commentary with caveats and refrain from uninformed speculation. Possibly journalists will rigorously vet profilers and criminologists, use them sparingly, limit them to providing context about past cases and resist the urge to test their clairvoyance.

But probably, based on precedent and experience, as the profilers would say, the specter of a thirtyish, macho white man, familiar with the area and fascinated by guns, is destined to haunt airwaves and fill news pages in the future.

"Now it's time for the finger-pointing," Van Zandt says of the reproaches ricocheting among press, pundits and police. "We'll all just bite each other half to death, and then we'll go in corners and heal our wounds. And then next time, we'll all come out and do it again--but hopefully do it better."

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