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American Journalism Review
Girding for Terror  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April 2003

Girding for Terror   

News organizations are making contingency plans to keep operating during an attack and to protect staffers who have to cover it. In the post-September 11 world, every journalist is a potential war correspondent.

By Rachel Smolkin

Related reading:
   » The Terror Threat
   » High Anxiety

Employees in the Cox and Knight Ridder Washington bureaus keep "escape hoods" at their desks. WNBC-TV in New York outfitted news vehicles with kits containing protective suits, gas masks, gloves and water. The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, less than 10 miles from the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, procured 600 potassium iodide pills in case employees are exposed to radiation. And USA Today in Northern Virginia is training a "Go Team" to protect themselves while covering chemical, biological or nuclear attacks.

News organizations have trumpeted their efforts to train and equip correspondents heading overseas to cover a war in Iraq (see "Preparing for War," March). But they also are readying themselves more quietly to protect employees here at home from terrorist onslaughts that experts warn could occur at any time. One of the legacies of the September 11 terrorist assaults and subsequent anthrax scare is the sobering realization that journalists anywhere could find themselves reporting from the front lines of an attack.

"What is new is that every journalist in America today is potentially a war correspondent," says Peter Van D. Emerson, a senior associate at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "Journalists from large cities to small towns could wake up and be on the front lines of a new kind of warfare involving radiological, chemical or biological agents with all the associated hazards or responsibilities. There's a whole new dimension here that's never existed before."

Editors and news directors, particularly in major newsrooms and bureaus in Washington and New York, are struggling to devise plans that would balance staff safety with rapid dispersal of accurate information to a frightened public. Preparations range from assembling emergency contact numbers and stockpiling food, water and first-aid supplies to more elaborate measures such as purchasing safety equipment and readying contingency newsrooms in the suburbs.

"Journalists will figure out how to cover a story. They don't very often think about how to keep themselves safe," says Karen Timmons, managing editor at Scripps Howard News Service, located three blocks from the White House. "This is a new realm for us in terms of thinking about how to flip that priority: the safety of the staff first and then thinking about how to cover the story."

When planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, reporters grabbed their notebooks and dashed into the dust- and smoke-choked outdoors to chronicle the devastation. By 9:20 a.m., Wall Street Journal employees had evacuated their offices at the World Financial Center across from the World Trade Center. Some editors rushed onto ferries to reach backup offices 50 miles away in South Brunswick, New Jersey, while the four deputy managing editors escaped to the Upper West Side apartment of Barney Calame, one of the four.

Top editors communicated throughout the chaos and even delivered stories via BlackBerry e-mail pagers. But Managing Editor Paul E. Steiger did not have a BlackBerry (he now carries one), and for several hours his deputies feared he had been killed when the towers collapsed. Editors were unable to account for their entire New York staff until nearly midnight, Calame recalls.

"Our reporters went charging into situations and wanted to find out what was going on," Calame says. "We weren't terribly well organized, so through the midafternoon people were using their own instincts. We wouldn't have asked them to do that had we been in a real command-and-control situation."

Reporters now have instructions to check in during an emergency with immediate supervisors. The supervisors could then contact top editors on their BlackBerry pagers, enabling those editors to assemble information about the entire staff. Calame says editors have emphasized that although they want to publish, they don't need on-scene or first-person accounts so badly that reporters "should take any risk that is not acceptable to them."

Before September 11, journalists tended to associate danger with foreign reporting in war zones or volatile areas such as the Middle East. "Even before [Journal reporter] Danny Pearl's kidnapping and murder, foreign correspondents had developed a set of safety standards," Calame says. "We never really thought about the U.S. very much."

But amid a post-9/11 existence of orange alerts and duct tape, the sense of peril at home is omnipresent.

"On 9/11, everybody, including us, just jumped up and ran down there," says Mindy Fetterman, USA Today's deputy managing editor for news, who oversees national coverage. But the newsroom is preparing for more informed responses during future attacks. "We will cover the event and cover it aggressively, but we don't want to die in the first 20 seconds," she says.

The paper formed a Go Team of 27 editors, reporters, photographers, graphic artists and others who would visit the scene of a domestic terrorist attack. In mid-March, the team was scheduled for a week of training on biological, chemical and nuclear warfare. Fetterman had arranged to bring in experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and from Centurion Risk Assessment Services Ltd., a British company of former Royal Marine commandos that has trained war correspondents for major media outlets (see "School for Survival," November 1998).

Should a terrorist attack render the posh new Tysons Corner headquarters inaccessible or unusable, USA Today officials have designated sites for backup newsrooms in Silver Spring, Maryland, in suburban Washington, and farther away at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, 64 miles west of the paper's headquarters.

At U.S. News & World Report, two miles from the White House, editors, reporters and designers have contingency plans to meet at one of several hotels in Maryland, Virginia or New York, depending on the site of an attack. "For news organizations with big brick-and-mortar presences and the need to publish quickly, the contingency plans are absolutely essential," says Executive Editor Brian Kelly.

At the Washington Post, four blocks from the White House, "every reporter and editor should know by now where they're supposed to go if access to our newsroom is disrupted," says Managing Editor Steve Coll. In the fall of 2001, the Post began planning to disperse its staff to various suburban locations, mostly in existing bureaus or other Post facilities. More recently, spurred by government warnings, the paper also started exploring containment scenarios in which staff might be frozen in place inside and outside the building.

"That might not disrupt publishing, but it poses all kinds of challenges in terms of employee safety and covering the story," Coll says. He estimates his paper has spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars at a minimum" to acquire alternative workstations and computers, backup telecommunications lines and other technology. Although the Post has collected a "mishmash" of equipment over the years, including gas masks for riot coverage, the need for additional safety supplies is under "active review," Coll says.

Editors at Cox Newspapers learned last summer that officials at the U.S. Capitol had purchased escape hoods for lawmakers, aides, contract employees, visitors and even Hill reporters. Cox editors concluded, "If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for us," Foreign Editor Chuck Holmes says. The bureau bought the one-time-use hoods at $150 apiece for its entire D.C. staff and taught the journalists how to use them. Unlike gas masks, which permit entry into a contaminated environment, escape hoods could protect the wearer during flight from certain chemical or biological attacks. The one-size-fits-all escape hoods are individually packaged in vacuum bags. The hood covers the entire head and seals at the neck. The wearer breathes through a snorkel-type mouthpiece attached to a filter cartridge, and a nose clip prevents nasal breathing.

The Cox bureau assembled call lists and assigned editors to contact specified reporters during an attack to direct them to the office or simply ascertain their well-being. Editors also have chosen reporters to station themselves at hospitals or to call police. They have tapped Scott Shepard, a talented deadline writer, to be their rewriteman.

Holmes is the designated work-at-home editor--"like the agriculture secretary during the State of the Union address"--in case of emergency or heightened alert. He stayed behind during the first anniversary of September 11 and on February 14, when administration officials said intelligence agencies had become particularly concerned about a possible attack that Friday or over the weekend.

Knight Ridder's Washington bureau also purchased escape hoods for its staff and employees of Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. After September 11, the bureau began equipping editors and others to work at home and provided them with high-speed Internet access. The bureau and KRT designated three contingency locations for continuing operations--editors also are working on several smaller, supplementary possibilities--and established a parallel communications network in Miami that includes an emergency telephone tree that staff and family members can call to receive and send information about their whereabouts and condition.

Bureau Chief John Walcott led his staff through evacuation drills, designated a few employees as "wardens" who would shepherd their colleagues to safety during an evacuation and established an assembly point outside the building.

He also procured additional first-aid training for some reporters and editors--another reminder of the chilling scenarios that September 11 and its aftermath have conjured in newsrooms. "In a bomb case, one of the worst problems is likely to be flying glass, which is likely to be a first-aid problem and a major one if you don't know how to deal with wounds to veins and arteries," Walcott says. "That is something that an amateur can be trained to do, to deal with a wound until the real first responders can get there."

WNBC-TV in New York has outfitted most of its news vehicles with nuclear, biological and chemical kits that contain protective body suits, gas masks, gloves, booties, tape and water. "We're not looking for ways to outfit reporters and crews to go into a dangerous situation," says News Director Barbara Johnson. "But if they find themselves in a dangerous situation, how can they protect themselves?"

Training in the kits' use is under way; most crews and some reporters already have received instruction. "You prepare as best you can and hope you never have to use it," says Johnson, whose station has made contingency plans in case it is unable to broadcast from its home at Rockefeller Plaza.

CBS News, based in midtown Manhattan, has provided protective body suits, gas masks and escape hoods, as well as training in their use, to crews, producers and correspondents in major U.S. cities. As at WNBC, Frank Governale, CBS vice president of news operations, emphasizes the equipment is a "safety tool for our crews to put on in the field and escape a situation. They are not meant to be put on to go and cover an event."

Governale says CBS plans to use its "Early Show" building as an alternative broadcasting site and also could use its Washington bureau as a base of operations. Additionally, Governale has started to make contingency broadcasting arrangements in New Jersey and Connecticut.

The network has adhered to stringent mail procedures since Claire Fletcher, assistant to news anchor Dan Rather, tested positive for skin anthrax in October 2001 (see "The Anthrax Enigma," December 2001). Trained individuals wearing safety suits examine all incoming mail, even interoffice mail from other buildings, and irradiate viewer mail to kill any potential anthrax bacteria.

At CNN, "hundreds of our personnel have completed a weeklong surviving-hostile-regions course," spokeswoman Edna Johnson said in a statement. "In addition, CNN has provided supplementary training to dozens of other staffers regarding how to respond to biological, chemical and radiological threats." The cable network has distributed hundreds of flak jackets, helmets and other protective gear to field employees.

The New York Times has obtained biochemical awareness training for about 40 of its journalists, including reporters in New York and Washington and about a dozen embedded with U.S. troops. Centurion provided that training and is scheduled to instruct additional reporters, Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis says. As part of the training, journalists are outfitted with gas masks and protective suits.

Under a mail safety plan adopted in the fall of 2001, the company advises employees not to open any mail that looks suspicious, comes from an unknown sender or lacks a return address. It asks them to pay particular attention to letters if the address is handwritten, misspelled or poorly typed. The Times also encourages employees who open large volumes of mail to wear latex gloves.

Some major news organizations declined to discuss planning for a terrorist attack, citing security concerns. Fox News Channel would not comment for this article. Officials at NBC News and ABC News say they have contingency plans for remaining on the air but provided no details about those plans, safety equipment or staff training.

While the most rigorous preparations for a terrorist attack appear to be under way in big cities, other newsrooms in strategic locations nationwide also are erecting defenses to possible threats.

The proximity of the Patriot-News in Harrisburg to Three Mile Island prompted Editor John Kirkpatrick to obtain enough potassium iodide pills for all full-time and part-time employees. The human resources department will safeguard the pills, which help protect against thyroid cancer if taken just before or soon after exposure to radiation. "Since we're so close, I felt very strongly we should have them here," Kirkpatrick says. He also told staff that should an attack occur, "don't be a hero. If you have any concerns, don't do something."

In October 2001, during the height of the anthrax scare, Columbus Dispatch Assistant Features Editor Steve Berry opened a Halloween card and discovered a powdery substance inside. No one was allowed to enter or exit the newspaper's fourth floor for about two hours, and Berry and three other employees were temporarily quarantined until state health workers concluded the powder was not anthrax.

After that hoax, the Dispatch bought a trailer to process mail in a contained environment. Editor Ben Marrison also is updating existing disaster plans to ensure that his paper could publish if editors and reporters were barred from their downtown building across from the Ohio Capitol.

"We are the heartland, and you have to be prepared in the event that [terrorists] want to come and do something here," Marrison says. "We consider ourselves just as great a target as any of the big cities." He says he feels obligated to contemplate worst-case scenarios because "you don't know how the mind of a terrorist functions."

That unknown is the most confounding aspect of terrorism planning for editors and news directors. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and even riots are to some degree familiar quantities that veteran reporters have survived and covered adeptly for many years. But September 11 and the anthrax attacks introduced previously unthinkable eventualities. The new terrorism has experts pondering potential weapons ranging from hijacked airplanes and anthrax to dirty bombs and smallpox. Unlike a hurricane, which arrives with some warning, terrorists could strike anywhere, at any time. Those uncertainties make effective planning difficult, to say the least.

"There are endless permutations, so we're trying to make the plan as flexible as possible," says Knight Ridder's Walcott, adding that any plan will need constant refinement. "The silliest thing would be to make a plan like this and write it down and lock it in a drawer and never look at it again."

Despite editors' pledges to protect employees' safety, competitive pressures and a sense of responsibility to deliver news and information undoubtedly will spur many reporters to the front lines if terrorists strike again. "We have a profound obligation and duty to deliver as best we're able at that moment," the Post's Coll says. "Journalism could hardly matter more than it would in such a scenario."

News observers and policy analysts are encouraging journalists to lay the groundwork for responsible coverage by filling Rolodexes with contact numbers for scientific experts and for local, state and federal authorities. Media and government officials are urging journalists and emergency personnel to work more closely together; some even consider journalists to be first responders, a term traditionally applied to paramedics, police and fire officials.

"In fact, journalists are first responders," Randy Atkins, senior media relations officer for the National Academy of Engineering, asserted in a January 26 Washington Post Outlook piece. "Not only do they sometimes get to the scene first, but they are the only ones focused on and able to describe the level of risk to the public. They can save lives through the efficient delivery of good information."

Atkins contends the media are a critical part of the nation's infrastructure. He is trying to secure financing so his organization can conduct a war-game exercise that would focus on the media and expose potential weaknesses in communicating information to the public.

The CDC is planning daylong training sessions for reporters that could take place either in Atlanta, where it is based, or at media organizations elsewhere. The sessions would examine what journalists could expect from the CDC and its federal, state and local public health partners during an emergency. Sessions also would offer an overview of potential bioterror agents and safety considerations, such as whether to fly a media helicopter or to enter an area if poisonous chemicals may have been released into the air.

At Harvard, the Kennedy School's Executive Session on Domestic Preparedness is collaborating with the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy to host an April 10 conference titled "Terrorism at Home: Challenges for the Media Covering America's Security." The goal is to improve relations between the media and emergency responders at the state and local level.

"The media need not become a tool of terrorism, by inadvertently spreading misinformation and escalating panic," Harvard's Emerson wrote in a September 2002 paper. "Instead, state and local governments should learn to look at the mass media as partners in responding effectively to an attack."

Emerson's research indicates that outreach efforts between media and local responders are spotty nationwide. But media and first responders in pockets of the South, Southwest and West, accustomed to natural disasters, tend to have invested more time discussing mutual expectations and needs during an emergency. On Capitol Hill, Jerry Gallegos, superintendent of the House Press Gallery, is working to create a press pool in which designated reporters would depart with congressional leaders during an evacuation or other emergency.

"On September 11, the leadership of Congress disappeared from public view. Nobody knew where they were," Gallegos says. "That's a situation that the media should not allow. First responders should include the media. They're the ones who convey information to the public."

Cox's Scott Shepard chairs the Standing Committee of Correspondents, which oversees operations of the House and Senate press galleries. He says creating an emergency press pool is a "top priority" for the year. While pool coverage is a foreign concept to Capitol Hill reporters accustomed to easy access to lawmakers, the need for such a pool "was pointed out so glaringly" on September 11, Shepard says. In a worst-case scenario, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, second in the line of presidential succession, could have assumed the presidency while the press and public remained unaware of the power transfer and Hastert's whereabouts.

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, has asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services whether journalists in the United States could be considered among the first responders eligible for smallpox vaccinations. As of AJR's deadline, she had not received an answer.

The Radio and Television News Directors Foundation, the educational arm of Cochran's group, in December published "A Journalist's Guide to Covering Bioterrorism." "Being in harm's way is nothing new to the news people who cover wars, natural disasters or other emergencies," Cochran wrote, "but covering bioterrorism presents a unique set of challenges. Public perceptions may, and likely will, play a deciding role."

The guide describes possible bioweapons such as anthrax, smallpox and tularemia. It lists government and academic sources, advising reporters to carefully assess experts before quoting them. Media coverage during the anthrax attacks showed no license or certification is required to qualify as an "expert," and the "scramble to find sources yielded a surprising array of people, regardless of experience and education, who got their words on the air or in print," the guide notes.

Vague descriptions of likely symptoms during a bioterror attack or exaggerated accounts of possible outcomes could incite a panicked public to overwhelm hospitals and other health facilities. "Misinformation--or even accurate information relayed in an overblown manner--could undermine even the best response and cause unnecessary deaths, chaos, panic and instability," the guide concludes.

With careful planning, editors and news directors hope to minimize panic and save lives--including those of their employees. Even before the war in Iraq, September 11, the anthrax attacks and the terrorist alerts ushered a sense of impending war to the home front and to the nation's newsrooms.



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