Threats put news judgment to the test

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Balance: Journalists struggle to report what is happening without causing panic.

October 17, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Even news directors at the smallest local television stations know there is a hierarchy of stories involving bombs. There are scares, threats and then, there are bombings.

The first two, which occur with alarming frequency at schools, can jar the emotions. But ethics guidelines commonly used by television professionals caution reporters against giving these events too much airtime. Bombings, obviously, can kill. They're inherently more newsworthy.

Similarly, recent incidents involving anthrax understandably have spurred widespread public fear. Some news executives, however, have focused a great deal of attention on scares that didn't turn out to be warranted.

There is no blueprint for how to cover a possible outbreak of bioterrorism. But there can be little doubt that fear has been driven partly by the media coverage of those incidents. And there can equally be little doubt that that coverage has been fueled by the apparent target - the media itself.

Staffers at American Media, a tabloid publisher in Florida, NBC News in New York, and the infant child of an ABC News producer have tested positive for the presence of the potentially deadly organism anthrax. A photo editor at the Florida publication has died.

Yet, we've also seen reports on the editors, reporters and other employees who have been tested for the presence of anthrax after suspicious mail was received at the St. Petersburg Times, the New York Times, CBS, the Boston Globe, the Columbus Dispatch and Newsweek. The editor and publisher of the Tucson-based Arizona Daily Star, circulation 93,000, announced it no longer will accept conventional mail from readers.

At 7 a.m. Monday, here's how CNN morning anchor Paula Zahn introduced a report: "In the homeland, the anthrax investigation expands amid growing concern about bioterrorism. An editor at the Boston Globe now is awaiting anthrax test results after receiving a suspicious letter similar to the one received by the New York Times." Sunday on Face the Nation, CBS chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer pressed U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft about an envelope sent to CBS that also resembled the one sent to the Times.

Reporters and anchors are going to lengths to distinguish between those people who test positive for anthrax and those who do not. But when the public is so anxious, journalists should take particular care in how much coverage they give the "scares" compared to the confirmed cases. Sometimes waiting to broadcast the story until more information is available can go a long way and save anchors the trouble of backtracking on the air.

Ashcroft didn't respond directly to Schieffer's question, but he did talk about the terrorist strikes bringing unhinged hoaxers out of the woodwork. The overwhelming majority of the 2,300 reports of possible anthrax or other poisonings have been false alarms or practical jokes, law enforcement officials say.

Robert S. Mueller III, director of the FBI, said yesterday that those who stage hoaxes or make false reports would face harsh punishment. But Mueller's remarks about those disturbed people should be heeded by journalists:

"They are squandering millions of dollars in public health and law enforcement resources, resources that could be better spent in responding to actual terrorist acts," he told reporters yesterday. "More importantly, they are taking manpower and time away from individuals who could be ensuring that there are no future terrorist acts."

Reporters, editors and producers face an incredibly tough challenge in reporting about a threat so little understood. Even the authorities are stumped. A letter to Microsoft offices in Nevada that was declared to contain anthrax spores now is found not to have the potentially deadly bacteria.

Al Tompkins, director of the broadcast division of the Poynter Institute, a journalistic think tank, favored more disclosure, not less. But he argued that context counts even more than usual. Stories that touch on examples of false alarms can help illustrate the problem, he said. Stories that dwell too much on the false alarms themselves can be part of the problem.

A television news director from a large Florida city told Tompkins that government agencies there are running short of biohazard suits to protect emergency workers as a result of all the false alarms. The news director asked: Should I report that? Wouldn't it be like saying the police don't have any bullets left?

Such soul-searching is welcome. Perhaps it could extend to telling viewers more about stories that don't have perfect video available but could have important repercussions.

On Monday night, for example, the BBC World Service newscast, available on Maryland Public Television, presented a clear-eyed account of Pakistan and India exchanging fire. The two countries, currently American partners in the war against terrorism, both have nuclear weapon capabilities. The conflict has received only scant notice on most U.S. cable and network news programs.

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