Offer sure-footed crisis reporting



War On Terrorism


Within a 10-minute period yesterday, CNN offered viewers reports that ranged from a live update in London on the alleged terrorist plot, to an analysis from New York by Valerie Morris on how the stock market was reacting to the news. In between, the coverage segued to Washington for a report on political fallout from correspondent Andrea Koppel, and to John F. Kennedy International Airport for a segment on how travelers were coping.

Each report was done with so much context, confidence and calm that America's pioneering 24-hour cable news channel nearly could have been mistaken for its venerable counterpart, the standard-bearer of international crisis reporting, the BBC.

That was no accident, Jon Klein, president of CNN/U.S., said yesterday. His network has been getting more on-the-job training in terrorist-related and crisis coverage than anyone could want.

"Unfortunately, in the past year or so, there has been ample opportunity for our reporters to hone their craft against major world incidents and tragedies: Katrina, the Pakistan earthquake, the war in the Middle East, the Iraq war ongoing," Klein said.

"So, it may simply be a certain surety in our step that you're noticing in our coverage," said Klein, who yesterday sent anchorman Anderson Cooper, correspondent Christiane Amanpour and a half-dozen reporters from Israel and Lebanon to London.

Just as it did last summer with its coverage of a series of London bus and subway bombings, BBC News offered a template for socially responsible reporting. Videotaped images - which allow for a level of gatekeeper editing - were consistently featured over live pictures. The word "chaos" was never used to describe the scene at Heathrow Airport. And correspondents regularly described developments in measured tones.

The result: While it was clear that a major story was unfolding, the viewer was never given a false sense of danger.

Jeremy Hillman, editor of BBC World, pointed to his network's particular experience: "For many years, we've covered terrorism on the U.K. mainland from the IRA [Irish Republican Army], so we have lived with this sort of story for a longer time."

Out of that history, the noncommercial news service has developed an "ethos" of coverage, Hillman said: "And on a day like today, we are very, very aware - extra aware if you will - of the need to present factual information, to present it in a calm way, to cover events as they unfold, to act as a conduit for people to tune in and really understand what's happening and what the implications are for them."

The biggest challenge for his newsroom yesterday in covering the story was to separate fact from rumor: "On a day like today, there have been 101 rumors. ... The question is always: What do we know to be true?"

CNN's Klein said his news operation has also come to be "extra careful" with terrorism stories: "There's no question that it's such a volatile subject, and that it so plays to viewers' fears, that handled incorrectly, TV news coverage could induce anxiety, to say the least."

The wall-to-wall coverage his channel offered starting at 1:07 a.m. yesterday was compared favorably to that of the BBC by several analysts.

Greg Nielsen, director of the BBC World Archive at Concordia University in Montreal, placed the British Broadcasting Corp.'s stellar performance within an institutional history that "goes back to the days of the Second World War when the BBC World Radio reports were a key source of information for the Allied forces and the world."

The result: "Higher standards and a keen sene of duty in time of crisis" by the BBC.

Nielsen said much of the coverage he saw yesterday was provided by CNN, and while it was "slightly more sensationalistic than the BBC," he did not think the difference was vast.

Dr. Michael Brody, who heads the Television & Media Committee of the American Academy of Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatry and has often criticized American TV for what he sees as "anxiety-inducing" coverage of events like yesterday's, said he also thought CNN's coverage was comparable to that provided by the BBC - except in one respect.

"The big difference between the coverage on the BBC and American news channels ... was in the way the story of yesterday's events was told," Brody said.

"On our news channels, the emphasis was on how inconvenient it was going to be for travelers, rather than terrorism and getting blown up in the sky. ... But that's the media reflecting the society in which it exists, isn't it?"

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