The Washington, D.C. Sniper as Media Event Within a Discourse of Fear

Glenn W. Muschert, Purdue University
Michael Steinhour, Purdue University
Kelly Powers, Purdue University

Mass media coverage sets agendas for social problems, including crime sprees. Recent research has focused on the development of two discourses: The first argues that ordinary people are constantly at risk of being randomly victimized. A second has focused on the development of a discourse of fear through the mass media's portrayal of actual and fictional crimes. This article examines the effect of the media coverage of the 2002 Washington, D.C. Sniper Shootings on reespondents attitudes about crime and their actual behaviors. The research reports on a content analysis of the mainstream national news media coverage of the Sniper Shootings, focusing on the development of themes of fear of crime and randomness of crime in relationship to this high profile crime spree. We then report the findings of a national survey which measured respondents perceptions risks of crime victimization and the randomness of crime in society. Finally, we draw connections between the mass media discourse about the Sniper Shootings and changes that in respondents attitudes and behaviors relating to their own or other potential victimization. The article makes a contribution to the two developing literatures in the sociology of crime by demonstrating that fear of random victimization fo crime is a component of development of a risk society.

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Updated 05/20/2006