Traffic came to a standstill yesterday after what authorities believe is the latest sniper attack. Traffic reporting did, too.
The police initiated both standstills.
At about the same time law enforcement officials were blocking major arteries in Montgomery County yesterday morning to search vehicles for signs of the elusive shooter, they were also requesting that radio and TV traffic reporters not broadcast any details about those shutdowns.
That left reporters able to warn commuters that traffic had become a nightmare, but unable to provide them with details as to where the nightmare was taking place. "The traffic became a story," said Monika Samtani, traffic reporter for WUSA, Channel 9.
Lisa Baden, a reporter with Metro Networks, a company that supplies traffic updates to dozens of local radio and television stations, said some of her colleagues compared yesterday's traffic mess to a rush-hour blizzard or ice storm; she prefers to compare it to the day in 1988 when a truck transporting hazardous materials overturned on the Beltway during a Friday evening rush hour.
Not all media outlets complied completely with the police request to withhold traffic details. Virtually every TV station broadcast footage captured by the Washington area's many fixed traffic cameras. Seen on-air during morning rush hour were shots of the police traffic halts on the Beltway's American Legion Bridge, and on Georgia Avenue and Connecticut Avenue, as well as the resulting slowdowns on I-270 at Route 118 and at the Beltway at Connecticut Avenue.
"Ethically I don't want to show those cameras, but the stations can make their own decisions -- TV is a visual medium," said Baden, who provides traffic reports for news radio station WTOP as well as WJLA, Channel 7.
"I do not hold the police responsible; I hold the sniper responsible," she added.
Samtani said she thought it was "fair" for Channel 9 to show footage of the American Legion Bridge shutdown, because "it's where they've blocked traffic" during other sniper shootings.
Police first approached the media with the request to withhold traffic information more than a week ago, after the fatal shooting of a Philadelphia man outside Fredericksburg.
"What's happening is with each day [the police] are getting a little more aggressive in their efforts to contain information about what's happening with the investigation and how they are handling the response," said WTTG news director Katherine Green.
This was, however, the first time since the request had been made that a shooting occurred so close to rush hour.
"The basic instruction has been to not publicly give any location where they are stopping traffic," said Jim Russ, director of operations for Metro Networks. "We certainly think that anything they request under these circumstances is reasonable."
Traffic news has become a surprisingly emotional and tricky aspect of the reporting on the sniper shootings.
"We got it from both sides," Samtani said of the reports she was broadcasting before the police asked that she put a lid on it. "Some were saying why are you telling us where the roadblocks are, you are helping this guy" while others called to say "thank you for telling us, we would have gone that way."
Yesterday morning Baden took two or three calls from listeners who accused her of helping the sniper when she reported that the Beltway had been reopened at the American Legion Bridge.
After reporting that on-air, she says she then got about 50 more calls, from people who felt the first callers "should get a life."
Baden said she intends to continue cooperating with the police. "If they were to call me and ask me to give information that would be helpful -- hello! -- I would be the first one up at the plate. I'll give them whatever they need."
Staff writer John Maynard contributed to this report.