On Sept. 12, 2014, a sniper fired a rifle from the woods of the Pocono Mountains, killing Cpl. Bryon K. Dickinson II and critically injuring Trooper Alex Douglass outside the Pennsylvania State Police barracks in Blooming Grove. The ambush started what would become a nearly seven-week-long manhunt for suspect Eric Frein until the search ended Oct. 30 at an abandoned airport.
What also began on Sept. 12 was a 48-day marathon for journalists not only in the Pocono Mountains, but across Pennsylvania and the nation. On Saturday, a panel discussion at the 2015 Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association conference featured four journalists who were close to the action and actively involved in covering breaking news of the shooting.
Over 48 days, journalists covered the Frein manhunt story minute-by-minute, with hundreds of tips coming in by phone, e-mail and social media every day. Laurie Mason Schroeder, courts reporter for The Morning Call in Allentown, talked about how journalists were bombarded by rumors about the slain trooper’s personal life and who the killer might be. “You really have to step back and say, ‘We’re not going there,’” Schroeder said.
Each panelist agreed on one thing: They were not going to report on anything unless it was factual and proven. When it came to the Frein manhunt, rumors swirled around social media and other news outlets about who the killer was and even about the victims themselves. The panelists all carried the same message to the audience when it comes to reporting: Ignore the ridiculous and the untruthful.
Once Frein, 32, was identified as the official suspect and he was put on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List, the papers really needed to focus on who Eric Frein was and why he was suspected of committing such a heinous crime. The Times-Tribune in Scranton did a piece entitled “Who is Eric Frein?” which became widely popular and went on to gain national attention. Terrie Morgan-Besecker and David Singleton, the writers, focused on Frein’s reclusive nature and how a seemingly clean-cut American man had become a suspected killer.
The story needed constant attention, and for smaller news outlets such as The Times-Tribune, that meant long, odd work hours. Some reporters such as Joe Kohut worked all 48 days of the hunt. “Try to get as into the community as possible, find out what they think.” Kohut said. He went door to door to get quotes and opinions of the townspeople affected.
One thing that stunned readers was the search warrant for Frein’s belongings. The list of about 150 items included everything from a book on survival to a bottle of soy sauce. Readers immersed themselves in stories about a young man who bore a resemblance to Frein and had been stopped multiple times by police,. Readers also were fascinated by details about Frein’s life, such as his habit of smoking Serbian cigarettes.
Panelist Tom DeSchriver, executive editor of the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, gave some advice to journalists who may find themselves in a similar situation. “It literally is a marathon covering something like that, and you don’t know when it’s going to end. Make sure you are solid on your facts more than anything.”
Frein was caught by surprise on Oct. 30, 2014, at an abandoned airport, where he was immediately cuffed in the handcuffs of the trooper he allegedly killed. Frein has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.