The Terror Threat  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   April 2003

The Terror Threat   

In scary times, context and precision are key.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Related reading:
   » High Anxiety
   » Girding for Terror

It's not an easy position.

No one wants to be the one who failed to warn his fellow citizens about a coming cataclysm. When there's a clear and present danger, it's the job of the news media to sound the alarm.

But what happens when that danger is awfully murky? When it appears quite possible, even likely, that there will be another terrorist attack, but who knows where or when?

Then the job gets a lot tougher. Because then the mission is to inform the public about the government's fears, but without scaring everyone to death.

Give the American news media mixed reviews for their performance this time around. (See "High Anxiety," page 18.) Cut them a break, too. As in the November 2001 anthrax scare, everyone, journalist and government official alike, was in uncharted waters.

What's more, there's no doubt that some of the journalistic confusion stemmed from the clumsy way federal officials delivered mixed messages.

But there's a value in scrutinizing the way the coverage played out--not, in most instances, to chastise, but to learn from this peculiar interlude. Sad as it is to say, there's little doubt that there will be future opportunities to apply the lessons.

As is so often the case, the keys are context and precision.

The Duct Tape and Plastic Sheeting Era began in earnest after a briefing by the Department of Homeland Security on February 10, three days after the government raised the terror alert to "high." At the briefing officials urged citizens to protect themselves in the event of a possible biological, chemical or radiological attack by stockpiling, among other things, water, food and batteries. They also talked of families earmarking a room for refuge, and acquiring enough duct tape and plastic sheeting to secure it.

Even though the advice had been on a government Web site for some time, the fact that the feds thought it necessary to assemble reporters to reiterate it sounds like a story, particularly coming after the alert level jumped.

The questions are what kind of and how big a story.

Don't forget, the briefing came at an anxious time, with every indication that we were on the verge of going to war against Iraq, and widespread fears that such an action, or even the likelihood of such an action, would trigger retaliatory terrorist strikes.

That made it crucial that journalists make every effort to provide perspective. The key question, of course, was were there strong indications that something bad was going down any minute. The New York Times took pains to deal with that issue in its story on the briefing (no, there weren't). Not everyone else was as careful.

Then there's the survival kit laundry list. True, the government did us no favors by listing the items without much explanation: What was essential now, what was most important, under what circumstances should that plastic sheeting go up? That's not the media's fault. But it ups the ante for journalists to make sure they sort it out, by pressing officials and talking to outside experts.

In the absence of that guidance, apprehensive people went berserk, snapping up rolls of duct tape like they were tickets to a Norah Jones concert. Which is not what the ham-fisted feds wanted at all; they promptly tried to lower the temperature.

Then there's the question of play. Many newspapers, quite appropriately, ran their stories inside. After all, the precautions had been out there, and there was no evidence of a looming attack. But the Washington Post trumpeted the briefing as the off-lead of the paper. When the Post plays something that conspicuously, it seems to be making a statement. The stampede to Home Depot was about to begin.

After the initial surge, we were caught in a vicious circle. Fear triggered panicked reactions, which triggered more--and often prominently showcased--stories, which triggered more frenzy. Otherwise sensible people began questioning whether there was something wrong with them for not panicking.

All of this, of course, was helped along by the inevitable wall-to-wall coverage on the cable news networks, replete with those awful terror alert labels.

These times are scary enough. Obviously, there will be occasions when the news media must convey profoundly unsettling information. All the more reason that they should approach the terror story with all of the care they can muster.

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