Press is scorned for its `loose lips'

Debate: Are reports of vulnerable targets a public service or serving terrorists?

November 11, 2001|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

If unimaginative terrorists are lurking out there, boiling with hatred but short on ideas, they need only turn to the prolific U.S. media for advice, say some infuriated Americans.

Crash a plane into a nuclear power station. Infect "biomartyrs" with smallpox and loose them on an unsuspecting public. Attack dams, tunnels, bridges, stadiums, ports or pipelines - all poorly guarded. Poison the food supply or water supply; they're impossible to protect.

Or is it technical know-how the aspiring terrorists lack? The press is only too willing to oblige, its critics say.

To make anthrax into a deadly aerosol, add an anti-static powder such as bentonite or silica. To spread germs efficiently from a crop-dusting plane, use a "broadcast nozzle" to cover a 300-foot-wide swath instead of a "raindrop nozzle" that can only cover 70 feet. To poison a city, combine conventional explosives with a batch of highly radioactive waste.

Amid the flood of terrorism coverage since Sept. 11, some reports in The Sun and virtually every other news source have provoked howls of protest from a public fired with both anxiety and patriotism. Reports on vulnerable targets are seen - often by older readers who remember the World War II admonition that "Loose lips sink ships" - as aid to a ruthless enemy. Never has the boundary between responsible and irresponsible news coverage been more fiercely debated.

"I've heard the word `treason' used in relation to our paper more times in the last three or four weeks than at any time I can remember," says Don Wycliff, who as public editor of The Chicago Tribune handles readers' complaints.

In most cases, says Wycliff, a veteran editorial writer, he has defended the terrorism coverage as fulfilling a newspaper's highest purpose: calling attention to important problems, such as vulnerability to terrorism, so that they can be corrected.

But not in every case. A story reprinted from The Los Angeles Times about nonmetallic knives that can pass through airport security included details on where to buy them, including brand name, price and even the United Parcel Service shipping fee. Wycliff felt the details were superfluous and provocative.

"We're learning a completely different way of seeing things because we've had a devastating attack on our soil," Wycliff says. "Certainly, when you think that what you write could lead to a World Trade Center [tragedy] in your own town, it really focuses your mind."

Long debate

The balance of press freedom and national security is an old issue. In a landmark 1919 case, Schenck v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the prosecution of the author of a Socialist Party pamphlet urging men to resist the draft during World War I and set the definitive standard.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote that the key question about any publication, particularly in wartime, is whether it poses "a clear and present danger" to the nation.

That phrase became a legal touchstone; in 1971, when the court allowed publication of the Pentagon Papers, it ruled that airing the secret history of the Vietnam War would not pose such a danger.

Even when no legal action is threatened, news organizations sometimes censor their own work. Sensitive details of intelligence or military operations are withheld. Names of murder witnesses, rape victims and juvenile delinquents are routinely left out.

In the terrorism coverage, too, ethics specialists say journalists have an obligation to consider whether their work could do damage.

"We have to weigh the risk of potential harm against the legitimate value of informing our citizens about how well-prepared or ill prepared we are for terrorism," says Bob Steele, who teaches at the Poynter Institute for media studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Steele says he understands Americans are desperate to prevent a repetition of Sept. 11, and he has heard vituperation of the terrorism coverage from tennis partners, airplane seatmates and even fellow mourners at a funeral. But he thinks news organizations should not respond by killing stories outright.

"We have the tools of tone and proportion. It might mean we choose a slightly different word, or a different length for a story, or a different placement for a story," Steele says.

J. Gregory Payne, a professor of political communications at Emerson College in Boston, says that this is "an interesting and provocative time for ethics in journalism." But he feels much criticism of the terror coverage is based on a "spurious" notion - that only a well-informed elite can be trusted with information.

"I don't buy the idea that we should keep the public dumb and unaware," Payne says. In any case, he says, terrorists can ferret out for themselves the same facts journalists unearth.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.